Mast Kalandar

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Sun, 25 Dec 2011

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Moving to a Graphical User Interface


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For many years now, I have had a user interface which is driven from the keyboard and is customisable (to a probably unreasonable level). This started with ratpoison, continued with fvwm and finally settled on xmonad. All of these were/are configured to do as little as possible to interfere with a terminal session (uxterm or urxvt) that runs "screen".

The use of graphical utilities is limited to situations where text-based alternatives were unavailable/impossible:

  1. A conky/xmobar line which shows me some current info.

  2. Accessing certain commercial websites needs Iceweasel/Firefox

  3. Editing/Annotating PDF files and forms needs flpsed, xournal

  4. Some people send me word/excel/ppt files which can only be edited using OpenOffice/LibreOffice

  5. Viewing PDF files, DJVU files and pictures required Evince. (Though it has recently stoppped supporting PNG/JPEG files to my annoyance!). Occasional rare uses of video using vlc.

and (of course!) the time-sink called sgt-puzzles.

Network connections are handled through a number of scripts that handle wireless (using wpa_supplicant), ppp, openvpn, ssh, socks etc.

In fact, even other hardware related issues such as volume control, multiple displays (for presentations), suspend, etc. are all handled through such scripts and keyboard controls.

A colleague who works at MicroSoft Research looked at my laptop and declared me "masochistic", little realising that using the touchpad and dragging things around (especially text!) is what I really find painful/pointless. My personal computer (to paraphrase the advertisement of a big computer firm) is "truly personal again".

However, there is one major drawback of not being "mainstream". The configuration that one uses is not checked sufficiently. There are not enough "eyes" to "make all bugs shallow". When I had the time to be more active with Debian development, this was a good thing as it meant that I would find, report and (occasionally) fix bugs in the packages that I use.

So in the interests of laziness on the computer front, it would be nice to have a more "modern" GUI, which:

  1. Is "mainstream" enough that common features for configuration and mobility would be ensured by in-built functions provided by upstream authors.

  2. Is customisable through text-based editing if required. A reasonable programming language for customisation would be a "plus".

  3. Will not interfere a full-screen "screen" session when instructed to stay out of the way!

It may seem strange, given the outpouring of web pages that decry the low customisability of Gnome 3, that I find that it seems to fit the bill after a first look. The network manager suite has grown to a stage where it can (almost!) replace all my custom scripts. The gnome shell is almost like Fvwm or xmonad in allowing me to programme it using Javascript (in place of perl or haskell). My way of using the system is already based on "activities" rather than "workspaces".

However, to truly "go GUI" it should become possible to do replace mutt for mail, newsbeuter for newsfeeds, w3m for browsing, wyrd for the calendar and the usual shell by the gnome shell (perhaps via its drop down javascript interpreter). It would also be necessary to configure these to drive them via the keyboard and it should be possible to access the data stored/used by the replacing application from scripts as well.


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