Tag Archives: review

Point of GNOME Return

GNOME 3 - made of easy

I don’t know why people hate on GNOME Shell so much:

I am convinced that Gnome has no future. It will soon be pushed into obsolescence by its own suicidal design. For those who want traditional, there’s Cinnamon or KDE. For those who want, pseudo-touch, there’s Unity. For those who want touch, there’s Android. Which leaves Gnome 3 nowhere and with nothing. An idea that came to solve world hunger. On planet Mars.

Ouch. Just…ouch. I understand that GNOME 3 is still new and funny-looking and trying to make friends out on the playground and all, but to say that its design is suicidal, well, that’s just silly.

The real problem here isn’t with GNOME’s core design or usability. It’s designed well, and it’s quite usable as of version 3.6, even though there are an awkward number of works-in-progress to be finished. I use it for my day-to-day, thank you very much, Ubuntu GNOME Remix, and I’m convinced, personal preferences aside, the main obstacle facing GNOME 3 is the unnecessary nature of its inception (and not a total lack of usefulness). There was no good reason to throw out the GNOME 2 desktop paradigm. GNOME 3’s “overview” metaphor isn’t necessarily better or more efficient than the tried-and-true taskbar method. It’s merely…different. It works just fine (and I think GNOME Shell does it better than Ubuntu’s Unity, at the moment), but I suspect the drastic change was more for the sake of change than it was a response to droves of longtime GNOME users demanding desktop ascension.

Nevertheless, here we are. GNOME has undergone puberty, and its younger siblings, MATE and Cinnamon, aren’t being mature about it. They’re too busy laughing and pointing fingers at the zits, the newfound body hair to notice the inner beauty…or the sexy new Tay Zonday voice. Apples and oranges, haters and fanboys.

Why the haters are wrong:

  • Organization. GNOME Shell is well laid-out and, in my opinion, better organized than Unity. Unity’s developers took a good idea, lenses, and allowed it to proliferate to the point where clicking the Ubuntu button or hitting the Windows key now brings up a barrage of icons. Overkill.
  • Overview mode. Clean. Organized. Faster than Unity’s laggy dash.
  • Application menu. A work-in-progress, woefully useless in most current apps—but when this sucker’s short and curlies start to come in (in other words, once it’s more fully implemented across more apps), it’s going to rawk. I’ve never liked menu bars, as much as they’re needed; this is a way to free up screen real estate without cluttering up the top bar. Me likie.
  • The lock screen. It really is beautiful and useful. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s more of a pain to use than the previous GNOME lock screen because of having to swipe / click and drag with your mouse to get to the login box. Simply hit ESC or ENTER. Duh.
  • Click and drag into the overview. The ability to click and drag from, say, Files to an app open in the overview is pretty sweet. To be fair, Unity includes similar functionality with its launcher, though it can sometimes take a moment to scroll through the list if you have a lot of favorites and / or open apps.
  • Adwaita theme. A much-needed upgrade from the default, icky Clearlooks of yesteryear, and my new favorite GTK3 theme, hands down.

Why the GNOME fanboys are wrong:

  • Necessity wasn’t this invention’s mother. GNOME Shell didn’t need to happen. The previous desktop metaphor (think the GNOME 2.x series, Windows 95 – Windows 7, KDE, etc.) was and still is perfectly relevant, functional, and stylish. No user ever, ever posted to a message board asking, “Why the hell hasn’t anyone designed a UI that’s optimized for both desktop computers and tablets, simultaneously, all at once?”
  • Neurotic simplificosis. There’s a such thing as oversimplification. The removal of all but the close button from GNOME’s window manager, for example. Yes, you can maximize a window by dragging it up to the top bar, you can unmaximize by dragging back down off the top bar, but as of GNOME 3.6 there’s no handy way to minimize a window without using Tweak Tool to restore the window manager’s minimize button. As GNOME Shell doesn’t allow icons on the desktop, GNOME developers are no doubt wondering why anyone would want to minimize their windows in the first place. It’s simple: to unwind during snack breaks by appreciating that naked volleyball chick desktop background your ex-girlfriend used to hate. My question is, can you really call something a window manager if all it does is close windows?
  • Application menu. One of GNOME 3’s most promising new features also happens to be one of its pubertal blemishes. Nautilus / Files is one of the first few apps to take advantage of the app menu, though full functionality across all apps remains to be seen. And it’s not all peaches and cream. For example, when you have multiple maximized Files windows open, there’s no way to close the currently active window from the app menu without quitting Files entirely—because the window manager discards Files’ close button when it’s maximized. Yes, you can switch to overview mode and close the window that way, but it seems there should be a “close” as well as “quit” option in the app menu.

I’m not that big a fan of UI developers’ deciding to apply tablet interfaces to traditional desktops / laptops. Ideally, a desktop should have a desktop-specific UI, and a tablet should have a tablet-specific UI. But if this is how it’s going to be, if this is our point of GNOME return, then GNOME 3 seems to be a comfortable middle ground. And, in light of the massive train wreck that is Windows 8, I suspect there’s more love for GNOME 3 than the haters will let on, because even Cinnamon, designed to thumb its nose at GNOME’s sexy new body, has recently implemented its own “expo” and “scale” overview modes. ;)

Ubuntu 7.10: A Brief Out-of-Box Experience

Ubuntu 7.10, live CD - and with only a single snafu!

Ubuntu 7.10, live CD - and with only a single snafu!

Update: It seems the ENE card reader (CB-712/4) in my Acer Aspire 5100-5674 doesn’t work too well after all. Two of my 256mb SD (Secure Digital) cards mount / work just fine; my 2gb SD card mounts, but gives me I/O errors whenever I try to copy to or from it. I have yet to receive any feedback concerning the problem, so I can only assume the Linux ENE drivers don’t yet (properly) support SD cards larger than 256mb(?).

* * *

Preliminary thoughts on Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon): a reasonably worthwhile upgrade, if not for the security fixes, then for the under-the-hood updates, as well as the fabulous software repository. And GNOME 2.20.

Wireless / video card configuration is now as simple as checking a pair of boxes in the “restricted drivers” dialog—if you’re savvy enough to figure out that that’s what you need to do. Unfortunately, GNOME isn’t very helpful in this respect. Upon first logging in, a panel icon informed me, erroneously, that both my wired and wireless connections were enabled; this didn’t necessarily mean that I was able to go online. It turns out I first had to enable the appropriate “restricted drivers” for my Broadcom chipset—but before I could do that, I had to make sure there was a working Internet connection (read: catch-22!), and I had to enable the proper repository.

Time for some menu-hunting

Then I could enable the restricted / illegal / immoral drivers in question. For moderately experienced Linux users, the process is a yawn; for newbies, a pop-up box or informational tool-tip would be of great benefit. Better yet: A clear, concise “getting started” sheet. Maybe that will come in a future Ubuntu release…

As with Ubuntu 7.04, my laptop’s sound system (Realtek HD Audio) works great with 7.10. Better than with the pre-installed version of Windows Vista that came with it (despite having DMA enabled, the latest audio and video card drivers installed, Vista’s sound system cracks and creaks during high network activity). And my built-in ENE flash card reader is finally supported! Which means Acer Aspire 5100 owners are only a single piece of hardware away from having a fully-functional, Linux-based laptop. The straggler? Why, Acer’s OrbiCam, of course. There’s a bit of a fuss in the forums about whether or not this device will ever be supported out-of-box, and whether it’s even worth the hacking time. The state of video in Linux is still primitive. Most people recommend buying a supported USB camera; since I’m a starving writer, I’ll continue to stick it out with Vista, which, despite its various eccentricities, supports all my hardware, and hasn’t crashed on me.

As of yet. ;)

Lunapark6 has a more in-depth review here:

http://lunapark6.com/ubuntu-710-gutsy-desktop-edition-review.html

Linux Mint 3.1

The Mint desktop after I've had my way with it

Mint. It flavors your toothpaste, makes peppermint patties all the more enjoyable, and now it powers your PC. I installed the Ubuntu / GNOME-based Linux Mint 3.1 on an Acer Aspire 5100-5674 laptop in late September, and have been using the system for about two weeks without too many hiccups. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The installation process went without a hitch and took about half an hour. I opted to use the entire hard drive, so it beats me how effective Mint’s partitioning tool is. Upon restart, I was presented with your typical log-in screen, and was pleasantly surprised to find that my laptop’s default screen resolution of 1280×800 was recognized.

I logged in and started performing the usual post-op tasks, starting with 3D drivers for my video card (ATI Radeon Xpress 1100). For this, Mint provides an everyman’s tool: Envy.

Butt-ugly, but it does the job

Choosing the “Install the ATI driver” option resulted in the proper video drivers being downloaded and installed (luckily I’d already plugged into my wired network, else the script surely would have come down with a case of the bends). Upon restart, I fired up a terminal and ran the ol’ “glxgears” command, and all was well—at ~1500fps.

Sound worked without nary a pop or scratch. Thanks to a Python script provided in the Mint forum, my built-in Broadcom wireless card works, though after an hour or so of surfing the Web, I had my first system freeze-up in two weeks. This may or may not be related to wireless drivers; I’ll have to wait and see if the problem recurs.

Two pieces of hardware that refuse to play nice: the ENE flash card reader and the Acer OrbiCam. The card reader will supposedly be supported by an upcoming version of Ubuntu; I haven’t looked too deeply into the webcam problem as I’m not a webcam kind of guy. I suppose it would be nice to have if a 19-year-old cheerleader named Ashley wanted to cyber. :P

On the desktop side of things, the included GNOME 2.18.1 is its usual minimalistic self, save for the inclusion of the Mint Menu:

A bit silly, though the search function is nice

…which strikes me as an attempt to keep up with Windows Vista’s beefed-up Start menu. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s worth replacing the standard (and quite efficient) GNOME main menu unless you specifically prefer the Vista-ish style.

On the topic of GNOME, I should point out that in a previous article, I offered a list of annoyances that kept me from using GNOME as my primary desktop. Let’s see what’s changed, if anything:

  • Window manager maximization troubles—gone, for the most part. One or two apps still have trouble remembering how to stay maximized; I’ve been told that it’s an app issue and not the fault of the window manager. An improvement, regardless.
  • File selector dialog—still has a tendency to open up at the bottom of the screen, forcing me to drag the window up so I can resize it to give me a decent file view. This is unforgivable.
  • The automount feature in Nautilus seems to no longer interfere with CD / DVD burning. Hurrah!
  • Mime types and file type icons are still not editable via a handy dialog box, ala KDE or Windows. Not quite unforgivable as the file selector problem, but annoying nonetheless.
  • Scrollbar width is still not easily adjustable. I’m sure this will become more of an issue as higher DPI monitors become more mainstream.
  • Screensaver options are still unavailable.
  • GnomeBaker—I gave up and started using K3b, a vastly superior CD / DVD burning application. No Mode 2/XA problems there.
  • GNOME panel menu editing is now as easy as right-clicking the launch button / logo and selecting “Edit Menus.” Good job, boys and girls.

Overall, Mint has satisfied my lust for a good office system that lets me listen to MP3s while I work or watch videos during my lunch break. My laptop’s boot time is about 60% faster than it was using Vista, and the odd audio-versus-network overhead problem that caused my sound to skip in Vista is blissfully gone in Mint (I suspect this is the case with most modern Linux distributions). The included audio and video codecs work out of the box—though Firefox tends to crash often with the Flash plugin installed. But that’s always been the case with Flash in Linux, and it will most likely continue to be the case as long as Adobe refuses to treat their Linux presence as more than just an afterthought.

But I digress. ;)

Central Park, in the Fall (Review)

M.S. Sutton’s new novel, Central Park, in the Fall, is a satisfying read all around. Pap, the main character, starts off in your average everyday post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by telepathic tabbies and psychotic traders. But it’s not all fun and games: Pap’s baby sister is soon kidnapped, his caretaker killed, and there’s a sinister presence slowly devouring the very souls of all who dwell within the city. Naturally, it’s up to Pap to save the day—or, rather, the universe. With the help of a crotchety witch and wizard duo, our teenage hero discovers that he must learn to bend the rules of space and time if he’s to make things right. And he does bend the rules. If one world doesn’t agree with him, he simply steps into another, past and present, in a game of cat and mouse that will ultimately pit him against the most evil of all evils.

There’s a lot here that will attract teenage readers and RPG gamers, though Central Park packs enough of a punch to lure older readers as well. Fans of furry / anthro lit will get their kicks from Eona, Pap’s humanoid love interest—and there’s enough humor amidst the horror to take the edge off an otherwise ominous premise. The plot is not overly weighted by philosophical details; likewise, as this is a dark fantasy novel, there is gore, but it’s added as a garnish.

Overall, a freaky-fun and fulfilling treat from M.S. Sutton.

Ubuntu Linux—Breezy is a Breeze!

It turns out I don’t hate Linux as much as I did in 2005, which was unquestionably a year of trial and error. I’d been wanting to shift from Windows to Linux, and had subsequently tried SuSE, Fedora, Yoper, and Ubuntu 5.04—all of which stank in one way or another. When I got around to downloading the Ubuntu Linux 5.10 (Breezy) ISO, I was cautiously hopeful: Ubuntu 5.04 had been the least-painful of my Linux experiences, and while it hadn’t been that bad, it hadn’t been that good either. Well, it was good, it just seemed more a sort of bridge between Warty and the (then) forthcoming Breezy—which is, in my opinion, the closest thing to Linux Zen I’ve ever experienced.

The installation process went smoothly. Though it’s all done in text mode, most of it is automatic, with only a few questions regarding username and password, keyboard layout, date / time, etc. On my somewhat ancient 1.33ghz Athlon, the whole process took about 20 minutes, at which point I was presented with a warm, cheery log-in screen.

Yep. No restart. All ready to go, just like that.

With the exception of a DVD-ROM drive DMA issue, Ubuntu detected and set up all of my hardware without a hitch. According to my xorg.conf file, my ATI All-in-Wonder 128 Pro has 3D acceleration enabled; installing and getting my ass raped in Quake 3 Arena has confirmed this. My Creative SoundBlaster Live! card sounds crisp and clear, no pops or crackles. My Internet connection was a no-brainer—DHCP was all ready to go upon first log-in; all I had to do was start Firefox and I was online. Even the screen size, refresh-rate, and color depth of my LCD monitor was dead-correct (unlike other distros, which tend to leave too little or too much space at the edges of the screen). Now, all of this is probably due to the fact that my hardware is almost 5 years old—old enough for appropriate drivers to have trickled down through the open source hierarchy.

I can’t complain.

The two things that strike me the most about Ubuntu: the simplicity of the desktop, and, well, the color scheme. I’m a minimalist, so naturally the more recent incarnations of the GNOME desktop have appealed to me. I’ve used KDE many, many times before, and each release just seems more and more cluttered with features that, while useful, are more often distracting. GNOME in Ubuntu is simple, elegant. And as for the rather bold step of defaulting to warm, earthy colors (instead of standard grays and blues), I was turned off at first, but as I went along, it grew on me. It might be a psychological placebo, but I’ve found that my mood, while doing day-to-day work with Ubuntu, has been more positive, overall. There may be something to this…

Let’s talk about GNOME. This time around, thank God, Ubuntu’s developers have decided to discard the “spatial” Nautilus element and revert to a more familiar (and more effective, in my opinion) file-browsing style where all your navigational needs take place in a single window. Also helpful (and also missing from Ubuntu 5.04) are the “breadcrumbs” in the location bar. You can can check your directory location with a quick glance instead of having to click a menu at the bottom of the window.

Something new (at least, for those of us coming from the Red Hat camp) to get used to is the “sudo” command. By default, Ubuntu creates a single user during installation time and uses that person’s password as the root password. Supposedly this adds a layer of security so that adventurous newbies don’t go logging in as root and accidentally deleting a precious system folder or three. Most of the time, this works just fine, and when you do need to gain some administrator privileges, a dialog box conveniently pops up.

Surprisingly, with this release, I can’t say a damned thing against Ubuntu’s font rendering. Put simply: They’re beautiful. TrueType fonts are also supported, and they look darned tootin’. Really.

Seeing as this is a Windows world in which Linux lives (and not the other way around), I must point out some pet peeves.

Firstly, by default, DMA wasn’t enabled for my Sony DRU-710A optical drive. Granted, DMA can be dangerous for drives that don’t support it, but these days the overwhelming majority of optical drives do, and, well, I guess I’ve gotten used to Windows XP’s daring tendencies when it comes to enabling DMA by default.

Getting my drive to use DMA involved using the

sudo hdparm /dev/hdc

command to get information on my DVD drive. Then I had to edit my hdparm.conf file

sudo gedit /etc/hdparm.conf

and add the following lines at the bottom:

/dev/hdc { dma = on }

This is a less-than-eloquent way to go, but upon reboot my optical drive was using DMA and I was able to perform a little happy-dance.

If you’ve ever had trouble using Kino before, I’m sorry to report that it won’t work any better this time around—especially in the video capture department. I’m able to plug in my Mini-DV camcorder via Firewire and capture using dvgrab (a command-line app), but Kino crashes every time I try to capture with it. My Logitech webcam works perfectly though. Go figure.

Other annoyances are small, such as Nautilus’ file properties dialog. When working with folders that contain other folders and files, there’s still no way to choose between single and recursive permission changes. And even though I love how good Ubuntu renders fonts, it’s not readily apparent, out of the box, how to install your own fonts. This can be done simply by copying the fonts you want to install into the “.fonts” folder (press CTRL+H in Nautilus to show hidden files) in your home directory, but it would be nice to have a little graphical installer accessible, say, via the System or Applications menus. And what’s up with Nautilus not being able to remember if you had it maximized upon closure? Ah, well….

Ubuntu Linux 5.10 is a slick distribution that, despite the usual small inconsistencies, works very well out of the box—as long as your hardware is supported, and as long as you stick with GNOME (KDE for Ubuntu is available, but it’s a minefield of frozen windows and crashed apps—beware!). If you want KDE, go with Kubuntu. If you’re willing to work with that gnomish foot we’ve all come to know and love, Ubuntu will serve you well.

Now then, Windows users: I can feel your anger…it makes you stronger. Come to the dark side.

Vacation, by Jeremy Shipp (Review)

The world has, since the inception—intentional or otherwise—of humankind, always been a dubious plane of existence. You’d be hard-pressed to find an author, poet, artist, musician, politician, holy man, or everyman who has never spoken out concerning the human condition, from the tiniest fib to the most horrific act of genocide. Newspaper columnists, Sunday preachers, eastern philosophers all dissect the meaning of life in their various fashions—but Jeremy Shipp’s Vacation (see web site), a first-person tour de force that takes place in an alternate universe and/or future-in-the-making, actually takes the human condition and turns it inside out.

On the surface, Vacation is about a disgruntled English teacher named Bernard Johnson who goes on Vacation (yes, proper capitalization) with an ex-student, once-male, now-female friend and discovers the world is not what he initially thought it to be.

Okay. Simple enough premise—you see it all the time in various forms of literature (well, maybe without the sex change). Peel away that superficial layer, though, and you soon find yourself entangled in a labyrinth of spiritual testing and social commentary unflinchingly portrayed by Shipp’s characters. In this world, society exists in two major flavors: the Tics and the Meeks, the former being the well-to-dos of the industrialized nations, the latter being the poor, the exiled. Using this metaphor, it quickly becomes obvious the Tics are our own pop culture, the pill-popping, credit-card-wielding, overfed, and over-stimulated masses who have been shielded from the terrible truths of the world in a sort of global propaganda scheme to bolster big business. The Meeks are, well, everyone else—a grassroots conglomerate of militants who have cleansed their bodies and minds of all social poisons. Somewhere in between is the Garden, an external haven lead by Noh, who seeks to seed truth back into the world, one mind at a time.

Bernard’s adventure plays out in the classic escapist fashion—on crack. Indeed, much of his transformation has to do with the altering of his mind, the skewering of his perspective, so that he may glimpse the dream he’s been living from the outside. He goes on Vacation, falls in love, becomes a tool for the Meeks, and ultimately helps to realize Noh’s vision of social revolution—but don’t expect any of this to be A-B-C, for the strength of Shipp’s narrative lies in his ability to toss the ball to his characters and trust that their decisions, their reactions will guide the story true. The underlying meaning is present throughout, but it is quite obvious from the start that you, the reader, are just as responsible as Bernard in coming to your own conclusions.

Shipp’s style in Vacation demands an agile approach, as various scenes shift seamlessly between dreams and reality—often without warning. I’m reminded of S.P. Somtow’s Riverrun Trilogy: one quarter real, three quarters surreal. Considering the concept, I can’t imagine it any other way.

Vacation is a potent social theory, a spiritual hopscotch from start to finish. With interesting scenarios and thought-provoking dialog, it is a compelling reason for fans of psychological fantasy to look up Jeremy Shipp.