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How Ubuntu didn’t destroy my MacBook

This time, anyway.

In the past few days I’ve bitten the bullet and installed Linux on my primary machine. Before I’d only been dipping my toe in Ubuntu (and its close friend, Linux Mint) by way of virtual machines. But now I’m positively swimming in it. Swimming, and only occasionally treading water.

Why was I so hesitant to install Ubuntu? My reasons are as follows:

  1. Lazy.
  2. Too chicken.
  3. Pretty sure I’ve seen “triple-booting” listed as a symptom of madness.

But most importantly: 4. Last time I tried that, Ubuntu possessed my MacBook and transmuted it into something demonic.

The Ubuntu of yesteryear

When Linux was still – to me at least – new (and, well, not shiny) I decided to install Ubuntu on my MacBook. This was Ubuntu 8.04 or 8.10, I’m not sure which. Either way it was a huge mistake.

The screen was squished, the mouse impossible to use, and the brightness totally unadjustable. The wireless card was a hopeless case, and the graphics drivers even more so. I think I remember the fans not working, either, though that might be the memory’s tendency to dramatize. It was, in short, a disaster, turning a once-tolerable laptop into a blindingly bright and blisteringly hot deathbox.

Since the incident, I’ve been far more cautious about what I install Ubuntu on. This may seem a strange idea to some people, especially those new to Linux. “What, you don’t install it on every machine you touch?” I hear you asking. No. It’s unstable, it’s dangerous, and above all it is ugly.

There, I said it. I like brown, but really – too much brown.

But then Ubuntu 10.04 happened.

The Ubuntu of today

Knowing full well what I was getting into (this is always a lie when it comes to computers) I had my MacBook hooked up to an external monitor, an external mouse, an external keyboard, and an external drive. If there were any chances being taken, they weren’t here.

And then it worked beautifully. That’s probably some kind of irony, but I was too busy wondering what the hell just happened to categorize it.

Out-of-the-box: Touchpad support, button support, graphics support. It took only the installation of one single other package to be able to adjust brightness. There aren’t any fan problems, the wireless card worked after plugging my MacBook directly into a router and downloading the drivers (System -> Administration -> Hardware Drivers). It is mind-blowing. (Oh, and it looks like a real operating system these days, so that’s always a plus.)

So what I’m saying here is this: if you have a MacBook of any kind and you’ve been afraid to Linux it up, don’t be. Find your MacBook model in this list and be amazed at what Ubuntu can do these days.

The Ubuntu of tomorrow

Okay, so this has been a terribly optimistic post – possibly because my head is still reeling at the amount of MacBook support that appeared seemingly out of thin air in the past year. But there’s still work to be done.

For one thing, the touchpad is… weird. Not much more weird than it is running Boot Camp for Windows, but still weird. It’s extremely sensitive, but if I use traditional mouse utilities to decrease the sensitivity even a little it detects only one tap out of five. And supposedly Ubuntu shuts off your trackpad whenever you’re typing, but this is only true if you’re typing without any breaks whatsoever, and I can’t find a way to customize the wait time between “touchpad off” and “touchpad o– hey, where’d that paragraph go?”

For another, the battery life sucks. I can’t figure it out. Especially since I can dim the screen in Ubuntu far more than I can in Windows. Go figure?

Still, it’s a comfortable experience with an external mouse and the touchpad shut off. And that’s good enough for me – I’ve moved from virtualizing Ubuntu in Windows to virtualizing Windows in Ubuntu. It’s not my OS of choice when I’m going mobile, but if I’m just sitting plugged in somewhere, hell yeah Ubuntu.

In summary, thanks Ubuntu for being awesome. Now I can get back to writing!

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Suggestion box and PostAWeek

Thanks to everyone who’s commented and recommended programs this week. I’ve been able to try out a fair bit of new stuff – Tomboy Notes, Synapse, and FocusWriter, to name a few – and really, discovering new Linux software is a major part of what this blog is about. So again, thank you.

I’ve put up a suggestion box of sorts if you have something you love to use and you’d like to recommend it. Don’t take it as a reason not to recommend stuff in the comments though – comments are always preferable since it usually provokes some interesting discussion down there. But if you have something you’d like to recommend, and it’s totally unrelated to whatever nonsense I decided to post that day, pop it in the box and I’ll give it a go.

Also, I’m joining PostAWeek. Why not PostADay, even though I’ve been posting every day? Because I’m not sure if I will make a post a day. I’m only posting so long as I have something about which to post. Every post I make, no longer how long or short, is something I want to share because I think someone will find it useful. I might be wrong, but at least that’s my intention. I don’t want to force myself to keep posting if I’ve run out of stuff to talk about. Cluttering everyone’s feeds and inboxes with useless junk wouldn’t get any of us anywhere, would it?

But I do want to write. That’s why I’m writing on Linux, after all, and why I’m posting part of what I’m working on every Sunday. I can’t make it my goal to post about Linux every day, but I can make it my goal to post a bit of what I’m writing every week.

So consider this my official PostAWeek announcement. Maybe a couple weeks late, but there it is.

In the meantime, keep suggesting programs – no matter how trivial you might think they are. I don’t care if you flood the suggestion box with requests; it’s always a treat to have new software to try.

As always, thanks for reading,

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Zim plugin rundown

I just can’t get enough of Zim. So far it’s the most brilliant way to organize one’s thoughts I’ve ever come across – and yes that is a challenge. If you can find something better than Zim – for Linux, of course – I’ll be glad to try it out and, as they say, “post results”. But for now I’ll talk about ways to make Zim, that WYSIWYG personal wiki, even better. Well, not better necessarily, but certainly more awesome.

Open Zim and navigate to Edit -> Preferences, then select the “Plugins” tab. You’ll find a whole bunch of stuff there. Some of it’s very mathy – for example GNU R plot makes plots and “Insert Equation” is exactly what it is on the tin – but the rest of it’s worth checking out. Here’s a quick summary of the options you’ve got.

Insert Screenshot

After resolving any dependencies (hint: apt-get install scrot) you’ll be able to use this plugin by going to Insert -> Screenshot. For a guy who blogs about Linux programs and likes to include pictures, this is pretty dang useful. To everyone else, well, not so sure. I suppose if you’re using images as reference for a character, and you’re too lazy to insert it the traditional way, you can use the “select region” option of scrot to capture it instead.

Tray Icon

Handy for switching wikis, or making a new page. It kinda approaches Tomboy Notes territory in convenience but not quite.

Task List

Now this is sweet. If you’re editing various pages in your wiki and leave notes to yourself like “TODO: Come up with better character name” or “FIXME: Not sure if dogs work this way” you can keep track of all your tasks in one place. You can also make it consider all checkboxes as tasks, or define your own keywords.

As for priority – the more exclamation marks, the higher the task’s priority. Just like in real life!

Link Map

View -> Show Link Map = diagram porn. It’s your entire wiki in visual form! The deeper your hierarchy goes, the sweeter this plugin gets.

Calendar

Zim comes with this plugin pre-activated. Great for making your own schedule, if for some reason you aren’t using Google Calendar for exactly that.

Print to Browser

File -> Print to Browser renders your wiki in good old HTML. Now you can print whatever pages you like.

Create Note

Allows you to create a note from the command line, which means you can make your own custom app launcher or keyboard shortcut or other neat things like that. I’m sure this option is plenty powerful, but I’m a bit stuck with it so far. I can’t seem to figure out how to invoke the command for a wiki that has spaces in the title, for one thing. I’ll definitely be revisiting this.

Documentation

For more facts and less opinion, plus coverage of the more mathy plugins, check this out.


Tomboy notes captures bolts of inspiration

A few days ago I posted about Zim, that WYSIWYG personal wiki great for making detailed notes about a story or essay or whatever you like to write about. But what do you do about those sudden flashes of inspiration? Sometimes you don’t have time to start up a wiki and figure out exactly where you want to record it, you just need to write down something, and fast.

So you grab a pen and start scribbling like mad on your computer screen, which is never a good idea since it’s devilishly hard to write on one. That’s why it’s always convenient to keep a little notebook on hand, or if you want to go classic, some napkins. Handy things, napkins, when you’re not jotting down ideas on them (since they are the medium of choice for the proper writer) you can use them to clean up messes as well. If you don’t have a bunch stuffed in your pocket right this instant I hope you’re either naked or you’ve just cleaned up the biggest chocolate milk spillage of your life.

Or, if this whole thing isn’t quite your modus operandi and you enjoy being chained to technology, there’s Tomboy Notes.

What is Tomboy Notes?

Tomboy Notes comes packaged with Ubuntu, and therefore with Linux Mint, and therefore you’ve probably stumbled across it already. In terms of organization it doesn’t even approach Zim – you can put notes into categories (called “notebooks”) and link them to one another, but that’s about it. For comparison, Zim gives you entire hierarchies, somewhat more formatting options and (this is the important bit for me) keeps itself in contained in one window. So if you’re going complex, go for Zim.

Tomboy Notes shines when you’ve got to take a quick note of something, e.g. you’ve run into a person named Elizabeth Prime and want to make the note “Elizabeth Prime is a really awesome name and I should use that somewhere,” which it is, and you should. So to do this you find Tomboy Notes, launch the program, and click File -> New.

Pretty convenient, right? No wait that sucks. Let’s make it better. Like, oh let’s say, instantaneous.

Giving Tomboy Notes a shortcut

In Tomboy, Edit -> Preferences -> Hotkeys lets you define hotkeys for the program. And here’s the first thing you gotta fix: there’s no hotkey for making a new note! Let’s remedy that right now.

Type in your shortcut of choice, for example <Alt>N. Yes, type it in. It’s not going to actually capture your shortcut for you. (Is this standard for Linux programs? Maybe Compiz has spoiled me, I don’t know.)

Now that you’ve defined a shortcut it’s time for the useful part: making sure you can actually use it. If you’re not on Ubuntu 10.10 or Mint 10, you should be done – the shortcuts should always work. If you are, like I am, there’s a bug and a workaround you ought to know about. Essentially, you need to add Tomboy Notes to a panel before the shortcuts work right.

To do this, first close Tomboy Notes and make sure it’s not lurking in a notification panel somewhere. Then right-click on one of your panels (if you’re in Mint and haven’t changed the default, the only panel) and select “Add to Panel”. Pick “Tomboy Notes” and stick the icon somewhere. Now the shortcuts should work. If they don’t, try getting rid of the icon and logging out / back in again, then making sure to re-add it to the panel before you open up Tomboy Notes itself.

If you haven’t run into any bugs, you should now have instantaneous note-taking! If you have run into any bugs, report them here please, and don’t give up – I had to play around a bit, but now my hotkey is consistently working.


After the Deadline: in-browser proofing

If you miss being hounded about passive voice by the Office grammar checker, After the Deadline is the extension for you. For those of us who don’t wax nostalgic about such strange things, AtD is an advanced proofing extension that works with virtually any text field in your browser.

Here’s the facts: there’s a growing number of nifty online writing services (Penzu and QuietWrite, to name two). That’s awesome and all, but most writers can’t get by without a spellcheck. While a lot of browsers now have rudimentary spellchecking capabilities, it’s really nothing compared to what Word offers these days.

After the Deadline supplements this by checking not only spelling but grammar and style too – so it’s not just matching your words up against a dictionary, it’s actually checking to see if you’ve misused a word or your phrasing’s a bit off. Its strictness on the matter is entirely up to you, of course. You’re free to turn off style checking entirely or add words (and even phrases) to its ignore list.

When AtD checks grammar and style it also gives you the option of explaining to you how exactly it was you managed to butcher the English language. If you’ve worked in Word you might remember this as a feature. I personally learned a great deal from it when I was younger. Specifically, I now know which rules of grammar only psychopaths and OCD sufferers adhere to. The paperclip was both, as I recall.

One thing that sucks: it doesn’t work in Google Docs. It just doesn’t. Somehow I’ll live, but I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.

AtD is available for both Firefox and Chromium, and if you’re on Linux chances are you’re already using one of them. If you’re using something else for some reason (e.g. you’re a freak) it’s also available as an OpenOffice extension, though I haven’t tried that out yet. Oh and one other thing: you want to left-click, not right-click on your mistakes to correct them. If you’re very tired you might spend four or five minutes right-clicking incessently before you figure that out. It happened to this blogger I knew once.


Launch your applications of choice with Kupfer

Just a quick one today since yesterday’s post was a tad on the long side.

With all the different kinds of software I’ve mentioned so far – a thesaurus, a note-taking program, a bunch of word processors – getting everything started up once you decide It’s Writing Time can be a tedious process. For example, even though Artha is tons more efficient to use, I keep finding myself opening a new tab for Thesaurus.com instead. It’s just easier than going to Mint’s menu and searching for Artha – or if you’re on Ubuntu you don’t even have the option to search, you have to know exactly where it is in the menus.

Kupfer solved this problem for me. It’s a simple program launcher that works like this: press Ctrl+Space, then start typing the name of the program you want to open. With Artha I don’t have to go past “Ar” before it knows what I mean. Once you see the program you want, hit Enter to open it. Done.

Beyond programs, Kupfer also has support for documents (though I’ve had to open mine at least once before Kupfer could launch them), webpages, and even your clipboard. If you want to see all it can do, check out this in-depth article.


FocusWriter and how I came to despise WriteRoom

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of fullscreen editors. It wasn’t until I tried FocusWriter that I realized why.

That’s not a slight against FocusWriter – FocusWriter is a rarity among these sorts of editors in that it is not only fullscreen, it is full-featured. Straight out of the box, FocusWriter gives you a non-eye-bleedy color scheme – black on light gray – a spellchecker, rich text capabilities, and an easy interface to switch between documents. It is, hands-down, the best editor of its type I’ve seen and probably ever will see. I may even use it once in a while, which is the highest compliment I can give to a member of its species.

So why do I dislike other fullscreen editors so? It turns out FocusWriter answered my question for me, simply by being so damn good. Let me explain the navigation experience: generally, FW gives you nothing on the screen besides your text, earning it that “distraction-free” label. Move your mouse to the top, however, and you will find – honest-to-su – a menu and a customizable toolbar.

But that’s not all. Wander over to the right and you’ll see a scrollbar. Wow. You might think I’m being sarcastic with that wow, and I wish I were, but I’m not. I’ve experienced way too many fullscreen editors missing this simple navigation tool, forcing me to page up or down the whole length of my document to get anywhere. I think we can all agree this is, to use the software-engineering term, stupid.

Finally, a short trip to the bottom gives you stats (words, paragraphs, characters, and pages), a clock, how close you are to achieving your defined goal for the day (wordcount or time), plus tabs to switch between the documents you currently have open. And there you have it, folks – a distraction-free text editor you can actually use.

Using FocusWriter made me realize just how disgustingly unusable most other editors of its kind really are. And for this, I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of WriteRoom, one of the most popular editors of this sort for OS X. For just twenty-five dollars (say it with me: twenty! five! dollars!) you can purchase the most uncomfortable writing experience of your life. Every single useful option is buried under so many unnavigable menus that the extremely limited amount of customization allowed (color, font, plus a load of small tweaks) is hardly worth the effort. There are no toolbars, only one kind of statistic, and certainly no clock or other means of keeping track of time. Switching between documents is anything but intuitive, and a pain to do even once you’ve learned how to do so. It is a stiff, unyielding program, although I will admit that it does have a scrollbar.

Why mention an OS X app on a Linux blog? Because everything I’ve said applies to its imitators – and, usually, worse. WriteRoom has set an infuriating trend among fullscreen editors – minimalism to a fault. A word processor should bend to the will of the writer, not force them to just “deal with” what they’re given. I’ve had a more customizable experience writing on a typewriter.

In short, fullscreen editors are awful and take refuge in their own “minimalism” to dodge the fact that they have virtually no features whatsoever. FocusWriter is the exception, a perfect example that minimalistic doesn’t mean featureless. Please, “distraction-free writing software,” get your goddamn act together. Give us something that adds to the writing experience instead of crippling it.

In the meantime, use FocusWriter. It’s free and it works in Linux, Windows, and OS X. Oh, did I mention it’s themeable, too? Here’s a winter theme by FreedomSurfer1984 to get you started, and just so you know, it looks like he’s taking requests.

If you try FocusWriter and decide you like it, subscribe to this guy’s blog – he’s the developer. You can follow him on twitter too, if you prefer. He’s on vacation at the moment, but once he gets back to making an awesome program, I’m sure you’d want to know. I sure do.