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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,



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.

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 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.

Zim, your personal wiki

There isn’t a lot I can say about Zim; it’s something you have to experience for yourself.

I will say that I’ve been searching for this program for years. You see, I like wikis. A lot. I’m even an administrator on one that’s fairly well-known. There’s just something to it, something about information on a wiki that automatically makes it feel important and organized.

And it is organized – wikis give you a crazy amount of flexibility. A page could be anything from a plot outline to a character’s biography to the first draft of a chapter. Start adding pages to categories, and you’ve got a super neat hierarchy of your own personal design.

As I’ve said, I’ve been searching for Zim for a long time. I’ve tried everything from Wiki on a Stick (a single HTML file that acts as a wiki) to actually installing MediaWiki (the stuff Wikipedia runs off of). Most of these have proven to be slow and clunky, with complicated ways of storing data. Accessing your writing outside of whatever program you wrote it in was pretty much impossible. And if you had just one bad save of your wiki-on-a-stick… woo boy.

Zim, however, is nothing like that. Not only is Zim a speedy and reliable program, but it doesn’t tie you down. Every page you write is saved in an easily editable plain text format, with a little bit of wiki syntax for links and what have you. You can create as many wikis as you want with as many categories as you want in each, and even insert images. And if you don’t know wiki syntax, don’t worry – Zim is WYSIWYG with extremely simple shortcuts for useful things like checkboxes and bullet points.

Whether you’re looking for a wiki analogue or just a new way of keeping your thoughts organized, check Zim out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Update: So you know, this weekend I’m going to be trying something a little bit different for this blog… but we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled Linux blogging by Monday 🙂

Stay focused with ADD Helper

Another great plugin from the extra plugins package for CompizADD Helper lets you focus on a single window by fading out the rest.

I prefer plugins like this one to fullscreen editors for several reasons. First, when you use a fullscreen editor, you essentially have to learn an entirely different program. There are several editors I’ve been using for a while now – OpenOffice Writer, for example – and having to learn a new set of features and shortcuts doesn’t appeal to me. ADD Helper works with the programs I’ve got now, so there’s nothing that I have to adjust to.

For another thing, editing with a “distraction-free” program blots out the rest of your screen entirely, putting your writing front and center. I’m not always comfortable with this, and losing most of my navigation options strikes me as unnecessary. ADD Helper fades out only what is bound to distract you the most – the contents of other windows – and to a varying degree; if you’d like to see what else is going on while maintaining focus on what you’re writing, you can adjust ADD Helper to a level of concealment you’re comfortable with.

And finally, ADD Helper is flexible. Whether I’m jotting down ideas in Zim or writing up a post in Chrome, ADD Helper is there with a press of Super+P.

I have to admit it works particularly well with Linux Mint 10’s default gray wallpaper – I’m not sure if I’d find it as useful against a more colorful one. I suppose I’ll find out sooner or later!

WriteRoom, DarkRoom, and now pyRoom

I’ve always had mixed feelings about *Room software (there has got to be a better way to say that). The idea behind programs like WriteRoom and DarkRoom is simple: it’s supposedly difficult to write on a computer because everything else on the screen is trying to grab at your attention and distract you. So a program like WriteRoom comes along and blacks out your entire screen, leaving nothing to distract you from its bare-bones word processor.

In theory, it’s supposed to help you concentrate. In practice, it gives me headaches. The traditional green-text-on-a-black-screen is not friendly to my eyes in the least. Sure, most programs give you the chance to change that, but not knowing of any better color schemes I default to black-on-white. Then I start wondering where the page borders are, how I’m supposed to know how much I’ve written, and so on…

Maybe I’m a rarity, a writer who thrives on distractions. Whenever I get stuck, I’ll stop (sometimes mid-sentence), minimize the window, mess around with other stuff for a while, and then go back to writing. I’m very in-tune with my word and page counts, also; I find they help me get a handle on my pacing. I’ve found myself using WriteRoom and DarkRoom more when I have something I need to get written, like an essay or paper, and less when I’m writing something I want to write. I just can’t stand staring at my own words and nothing else for more than a half-hour at a time, maximum. They’re not that great!

But still, as I hinted at before, distraction-free editors do have their uses… so, knowing I’m going to need one sooner or later, I found pyRoom for Linux. Surprisingly, I like it.

There are a few subtle differences between the layout of pyRoom and the other editors. In WriteRoom/DarkRoom, the text stretches from top to bottom of whatever screen you’re working on. But pyRoom gives you a box to write in, instead, keeping your text concise and manageable.

As for the colors, pyRoom is the only *Room I know that gives you the option to pick not only individual colors, but a color scheme. “Amber” is a lot easier on the eyes than green-on-black, believe me.

Ahh, that's better: the pyRoom help window displayed in glorious Amber.

Besides this, pyRoom gives lets you edit multiple files at once. That’s right – you can work on multiple buffers. To switch between opened files, you need only hold down the Ctrl key and tap page up or down. Now you can work on a document and refer to an outline at the same time. Seriously, this part blew my mind.

Of course, it has some limitations – unlike WriteRoom (and unfortunately like DarkRoom) you can only edit plaintext files, not RTF. This is a huge issue for me, since every story requires some sort of formatting, even if it’s just bolding the chapter titles. Hopefully later editions of pyRoom will give us the option.

All in all, though, pyRoom is my favorite fullscreen editor yet. If you’re concentration-challenged, this is definitely the program for you.