27 August 2008

Shiny! Shiny! Useful? Yes.

When I was first getting into Linux, there was a prevailing attitude of, "Yes, yes, it's just barely workable enough if you're a geek, but for anyone who's not a Unix expert, it's not very easy to use, and it's awfully ugly." The prevailing attitude had a point. This was back when you had to specify your line refresh rate manually to get X-Windows to work — if it would work at all, which was not very often.

I hope what I've written so far has shown that Linux is no longer in that situation. The only holdout criticism I still take seriously is, "I can't run [my favourite PC game] on it." WINE and other emulators have made great strides, but not all games are supported, and if you're a big video-game player, I can see how that could influence you. Since my idea of "playing video games" means Tetris or Solitaire (both of which are standard extras in Ubuntu and other distros), I just don't care that much.

This post is for those of you who like your computer environment to be pretty, but don't play games.

One of my favourite things about the "standard" GNOME desktop in Linux are that for your one monitor, you get several desktops. I keep mine set to the Ubuntu default of four — less than that and I run out of room, more than that and I run out of things to put on them. The virtual desktops work like this: you can switch between everything on a single desktop (say, your word processor and a PDF you're referring to, plus a web page you're also referring to), but still have other applications running on other virtual desktops (say, your MP3 player) that will stay out of your way until you switch to that virtual desktop. It's sort of like having four monitors running at once, even though you're on your laptop and sitting on a park bench in real life.

I love this because it means that I can put applications that I want to have running but don't otherwise need to attend to (the MP3 player) out of my way, while the applications I'm actually going to work with are on one or two desktops. As I write this, I have my e-mail application open on desktop #1, this editing window open on desktop #2, and an open folder with the screen shots I'm about to include in this post on desktop #3.

To switch between desktops, I can either click on the one that I want (the environment has little clickable icons for each one, with application icons superimposed so you can keep track of which application is where), or I can take advantage of an "eye candy" utility that has been added in recent years: Compiz.

Compiz does a lot of things, from the "why didn't they have that by default?" to "just for fun". In Ubuntu you can find it under System -> Advanced Desktop Settings; in other distros, you'll have to find someone more knowledgeable than I who knows where to find it.

Being able to work with several applications open but not all cluttering the same taskbar is fine and all, but adding some pizzazz and extra utility makes it feel like a luxurious necessity (sort of like my friends who see getting a pedicure with French-style polish as basic hygiene, like brushing one's teeth). With Compiz installed and the right goodies enabled, you can see all of your desktops in a ribbon and then scroll through to the one you need, like this:

You can also use the infamous cube view to rotate between desktops, like this:

(Note: Normally I don't place applications "around the corner" like the calculator is in the screen shot. I just wanted to show that you could if you wanted to.)

For working on a piece of writing, I usually have my "statistical" apps (Tomboy Notes, word count spreadsheet, calculator) on one desktop that I ignore except at the beginning and end of my writing session, my word processor on another desktop, a third desktop for any reference material, and the fourth desktop is inevitably my e-mail application and MP3 player. When I switch between desktops, it looks something like this:

Both the "desktop ribbon" and the "cube" effect have shortcut keys that let you use them efficiently — after the first few days you'll stop lingering admiringly over the cool video effect and just want to jump to your next task, believe me. The animation corresponding to the keyboard shortcut you used will run in the minimum amount of time and let you get on with your work, having enjoyed a fraction of a second of pure aesthetics.

Sometimes eye candy does have a useful purpose — the ribbon lets you scan where the heck you put that Tomboy Note, or the cube reminds you of how you've organised your work. Sometimes you just turn on the "rain" speical effect because you can (like I did just now). I'd even argue that the "rain" effect has its use, though — it keeps me interested and focused on the screen because something is happening, and that keeps me from getting distracted from this blog-writing. I've almost forgotten I have laundry to hang up (not entirely, obviously).

I'm getting to the end of this "Linux for writers" series. I want to blog about file conversions (the kind where no-one knows you've done a file conversion), and then I think I'm done for now. If anyone wants to hear about other topics, let me know. Personally, I'm just wishing I'd installed Celtx in time to be used to it so I could have completed an outline in it in time for the 3-day novel event this weekend. I still plan to do a writing marathon on my own to make up for time lost moving house — next year I'll be able to participate in the event fully.

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