Linux in the 21st Century

For years now, I’ve been an avid Linux user. I (half) joke about how crummy Windows is, and I hate when I have to support Windows, though I’m really not as much of a Linux zealot as you might think. I have to confess that there’s a part of me that likes knowing how to do arcane things that lots of other people don’t know how to do. See all that text scrolling by in my simple terminal window? That’s me installing software, bucko. No graphical installers with smiling paperclips for me. I really do like understanding how my system works (more or less), being able to look under the hood to troubleshoot things. I like not having to understand how a registry works in order to tweak software (though I do have to know how to edit a text configuration file, which might be as scary to others as a registry is to me). But some of my old school willingness to dispense usability in favor of a dumb sense of pride and configuration simplicity is wearing off. More and more, I’m finding that there are tools it’d be nice to have that aren’t best implemented in a terminal application. Sure, I could write a program to read a text file I store meeting requests in and send me an email when I’m about to have a meeting, but that takes work and seems not terribly reliable. More and more, I’m looking for tools to handle these sorts of tasks for me, and I’m finding that I like them. I’m emerging from my self-imposed prison of command line solutions and testing out tools that just might help me work like a normal human being, and with some surprisingly good results.

One such tool is Korganizer, the KDE desktop manager’s calendar and organizer tool. In recent months, I’ve been required to attend many more meetings than in the past, and trying to keep them all straight has been a pain. I had tried using Mozilla’s Sunbird calendar program at various times in the past, and it’s a fine piece of software, but it clutters up my workspace. In addition to my mail window, my browser, my irc client, and my tabbed terminal window, I also had to have Sunbird running, and it just irritated me. So I recently tried Korganizer, which it turns out will hide in your system tray and pop up alerts reliably. I’ve been using it for a couple of months now and really have no complaints. It’s a little sluggish on my system, but not so bad that it keeps me from using it. I can tolerate a little UI lag when adding events if the trade-off is reliable notification of upcoming events, the ability to suspend or dismiss events, reasonable handling of recurrence, and a view of my day or week (or month) that lets me see at a glance what’s on my schedule. And Korganizer has all of these things. It also handles todo lists and journals, which I guess are like meeting minutes. I started using todo lists but found that having to open the app to see them made them less useful. I haven’t played with journaling. There are a bunch of buttons at the top that I haven’t done much with, though I’m sure they’re useful. The system tray utility seems to use up no appreciable resources, and that’s a big win on a system that runs dev mysql and apache servers in addition to all my desktop software. I’m sure there are things that Korganizer could do a lot better (I wish I could see our executive calendars, kept on a remote groupware server; as it is, I’m an island), but it beats holy hell out of hacking together something using text files and output from the “cal” command, and it has become a must-have tool for me.

Next up is Komodo Edit. I’ve taken comfort in the simplicity of the command line and the non-GUI text editor since I became used to editing files in pico and reading mail using pine back in college. When I began doing a lot of programming and learned a lot of the cool things you can do using the vi editor, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever go back to an IDE that would require mouse moves and menu navigation. My fingers are hard-wired to do vi commands now. I can do text replacement in my sleep (want to add a tab to the beginning of lines 23 – 47? type: “<ESC> :23,47s/^/\t/”; oops, wanna undo it? just type “u”; then “:wq” to save and close), and I have trouble editing in any other way. One of my few beefs with vi has always been that it’s hard to do operations that span more than one vertical span of screen real estate. To delete a line range, you have to count lines or look for line numbers and then delete or cut. If you’re trying to move a hundred lines around, this can be a minor pain. A few years ago, I tried out ActiveState’s Komodo IDE. It’s built on top of Mozilla’s code and so is a cross-platform solution. At the time, it was very sluggish and didn’t offer much that interested me. Sure, there was code completion and syntax highlighting, but I can get the latter in vi, and the former almost always winds up irritating me more than it helps me. Plus it cost money to use the non-evaluation version. Recently, ActiveState and Komodo have been in Mozilla news. They’re starting a project to open up parts of their source, it turns out. In reading about this, I learned about Komodo Edit, which is the light-weight version of their pay-to-play editor. It’s free and pretty responsive (probably because it’s doing a lot less junk behind the scenes). Most importantly for my use, it has vi key-bindings. So I can fire up Komodo Edit, avail myself of what scrolly and selection capabilities are useful to me, and still do the weird “:23,47s/^/\t/” sort of commands that my fingers are so used to. What’s more, I can define projects and view select files in a sidebar, so I do a lot less typing to navigate my file system when working on projects that require me to edit a number of files. I’ve also discovered that the find and replace helps out sometimes when there’s some regex that I can’t quite work out by hand (e.g. when I want to replace with newlines). I probably use a tiny subset of Komodo Edit’s feature set, but they’re pretty useful. I find that if I’m doing one-off edits or will be staying in one file and toggling to the command line to test (e.g. when working on a perl script to parse a log and display summary info), I do better to stay at the command line, but Komodo Edit is fast becoming not a “must have” but a solid “nice to have when I want it” tool.

My latest interest is in launchers. I never really caught on to Mac OSX’s Quicksilver launcher. Or it’s not that I didn’t get it at some level as that I didn’t see that it was a killer feature for most Mac users, who I think of as people who like to draw pretty pictures more than as people who tend to want to remember abstruse key combinations needed to make a launcher behave in useful ways. But as I find myself more and more trying to get back to documents or applications that are buried in the file system or in menus, I find myself wishing I could just type a couple of keys to pull up the apps or docs. KDE’s Katapult looks very slick and promising, but it’s geared toward KDE applications and interactions, and I can’t seem to pull myself away from the Gnome desktop manager. Although I’ve read that Katapult is easy to extend, documentation seems poor at best, and I suspect you have to drink the KDE Koolaid and know a bit about working with KDE frameworks in order to make much headway. Gnome has an app named gnome-launch-box that is sort of like Katapult, but it’s very ugly. Although you can run it without the window initially on top of other apps, I can’t figure out how to then provoke it (in Katapult, you press CTRL-space and the slick interface appears instantly). It’s pretty responsive in terms of finding and launching folders and applications, and it handles multiple matches (e.g. a list pops up displaying both Korganizer and Komodo Edit if you type “ko”) and seems to be wired for extensibility, but by the developers’ own admission, it’s just not ready for prime time yet. Ubuntu ships with a tool called Deskbar that is a sort of launcher, but it hasn’t worked very well for me so far. It’s hard to predict what results it’ll return and in what order, and though it appears to be fairly extensible, a plugin I wrote for it (actually, I just modified the bugzilla plugin to point to my bugzilla install) is quirky at best. So while I’m on the hunt for a good launcher, none of the options I’ve found to date quite cut the mustard yet.

Of course I use Flock and Thunderbird. In the next few weeks, Flock will be making a big step toward its original vision for the browser as a social tool. Thunderbird is pretty low-frills but has served my email needs very well for roughly five years now. But these apps are old news for me, so they don’t really fit into this post, which outlines a recent foray into a broader set of GUI apps. In the same category are xchat and OpenOffice.org.

So, there you have it. Back into my dork cave I go. All this time out in the land of the first-class user has instilled in me a craving for a darkened room and the glow of a terminal window flickering up at me in a chunky Courier font.

:wq

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