The Irony of the New Desktop Paragdim

Recently in response to this blog post here. Somone made the remarks that shortcut keys are what makes Unity/Gnome Shell 3 usable. To quote them, "HOWEVER, without providing keyboard shortcuts, you might as well shoot the user in the head."

The fact that Gnome Shell 3 and Unity are much better with shortcuts is quite ironic.

If you look at all the classic Linux X desktop Window Managers like twm, fwm, afterstep, E16, IceWM, Blackbox, OpenBox, Fluxbox, etc, you will find a heavy reliance on shortcut keys.

Regular users complain that these environments don't work for them. Power users that champion these systems customize them the make them more effective for their own use. One of these customizations is defining and using shortcut keys. Not just the normal CTRL-F for find or CTRL-C for copy. But highly customized shortcuts like CTRL-ALT-1 is go to desktop 1, CTRL-SHIFT-1 is move window to desktop 1 while remaining on the current desktop and SHIFT-ALT-1 is move window to desktop and switchto desktop 1 at the same time.

The big drive from Desktop Environments like KDE 1, KDE 2, KDE 3, KDE 4, Gnome 1 and Gnome 2 is the desire to create a desktop that users can feel productive in without having to memorize shortcut keys. The great equalizer? Everything being quickly and easily accessible with the mouse.

So when the successors to Gnome 2 (both Gnome Shell 3 and Unity) create desktops for regular users that make using the mouse so inefficient that the only way the desktop is usable and productive again is fur the user to learn shortcut keys, I find it rather funny.

Gnome Shell needs shortcut keys and has tried to create a distraction free environment by removing all of the taskbar items and indicators. Unity needs shortcut keys and has tried to create an environment where they have a mega indicator area with custom written indications. If the app you run does not have a plugin to work with it, then it is a second class citizen.

I say try one of the lighter Window Managers and leave the Desktop Environments behind. They stick to desktop.org standards. Applications that take advantage of trays, docks and task lists will fit right in. Most of these desktop environments also have a 10 to 15 year track record of being productive and easy to use...once you learn a few shortcut keys.


The Beauty of Slax

It has been more than a year since I have written anything. I want to pick up where I pretty much left off at, working with Slax.

What is Slax? It is a modular live CD/USB Linux distro based on Slackware. The beauty of Slax is in how it is built. First you have to understand how a regular Linux live cd is built. Lets take a look at the process.

Remastering a Live CD.
  1. Space is set aside on the hard drive and a copy of the Linux that will be on the live CD is put into a folder on the hard drive.
  2. Using a special process called chroot, the computer is tricked into thinking the series of folder holding the Linux that ends up on the CD is actually a running system and commands are able to be executed on this system.
  3. Commands are then executed that download and install software. Software can be removed as well. Settings can be configured and other changed can be made.
  4. When all the changes are done a program that works very much like zip takes what is usually about 2 gigs of software and compresses it down to one file that is about 680 megs in size.
  5. The 680 meg compressed file, a copy of the Linux kernel the booted system will use and a special boot loader for starting from CD and booting Linux up are all placed together in one directory.
  6. A bootable ISO CD image file is created from those files.
  7. A CD is burned from the ISO image.
The thing to note in the above process is that after you test the CD and find anything needs to be changed you have to go back to step 2. It can be a very time consuming process.

The Beauty of Slax
With Slax the system has been broken up into a series of modules. each of these modules is mini compressed file much like the 680 meg file mentioned in the last paragraph. But instead of being 680 megs in size they are more often 10 meg or 20 meg in size. A typical slax system is made up of five or six modules like in the following example:
From left to right: Slax-Core, Xorg-Video, KDE-Desktop, KDE-Apps, KDEOffice, SlaxDev and FireFox.

The above files on a Live CD weigh in at about 210megs, so there is plenty of room for customizing and adding software to the install. At the Slax webesite there are hundreds of modules that can be added to Slax. Most Slackware software packages can be converted to Slax modules. Any package for Slackware 11 or 12 that can be found on LinuxPackages can be used.

The process for customizing a Slax CD is much simpler.
  1. The Slax CD ISO image file is opened up with an ISO editor that allows files to be added or removed from a ISO image. PowerISO or ISO Magic for Windows or ISO Master for Linux.
  2. Any slax module can be added to the /modules folder or removed from the /modules folder
  3. Any files that are not in modules can be put into the /rootcopy folder. Example: to put the file README.TXT on the desktop put it in /rootcopy/root/Desktop.
  4. Files that are to be available on the CD but not copied the the running system can be put in /extra
  5. Save the ISO image.
  6. Burn the ISO image to disk.
In less that 5 minutes you can find a Slax module on the Slax website, download it, open up the Slax CD in an ISO editor, place the module in the /modules folder, save the ISO Image and burn the CD. That is a far cry from the minute or two to get into a chroot environment, two more to download a program and then another 10 or 15 minutes to compress the 680 meg file and another 2 minutes to create a CD image.

Thus what is a 30 minute plus job for any other Live CD is a 5 minute job in Slax.

Slax is a serious tool for computer professionals. It is also serious fun to customize and work with.