Emacs, Org Mode, and a database like no other

Like any married man, I suppose, I have a Honeydew List. It’s a list that forever changes but never goes away.

Shopping lists, Honeydew lists, radio program lists…. I keep my lists in Emacs, and in particular I utilize a rockin’ good hunk of Elisp code called Org Mode. In Org Mode, you can fold lines in and out, and you use the number of asterisks to identify the level of the line: its place in the hierarchy, as you will. Here is a classic Org Mode top level:

With your cursor on that top line, hit the [Tab] key. The next level (everything with two asterisks) will be revealed.
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Where are they now?

I’ve been blogging here for the better part of nine months, with some absences, of course. (The most recent one: my wife is having a medication reaction in the wake of what we thought was going to be a peaceful sub-surgical procedure. She’s been really ill for the better part of two weeks.) In those nine months, I have experimented with many a distro, and sometimes I got far enough to write about them. Here, I want to go back and look at them with the benefit of hindsight, which as we all know can bite you hard if you really believe it’s 20/20.

Foresight Linux 2.5, Xfce edition
The first distro I reviewed after I opened this blog, Foresight Linux offered me a veritable fantasia of computing enjoyment. It hits a near-spotless balance between “just works” and “urges you to get under the hood”. Sadly, though, I had problems with sudo conary updateall on both the Play Computer and the laptop. Simply put, there appears to be a high amount of resource usage—memory usage in particular—associated with Conary, and if I went for too long (more than a couple of weeks) without updating, or if a kernel update came along at the same time as a LibreOffice update, Conary froze in its tracks. Bug reports have been filed. The way around this would probably be to run sudo conary updateall in the terminal emulator, pipe the output to a file, render the text more or less readable by way of a whole lotta search-and-replace operations, and run conary update… one or two packages at a time. But whenever I thought about doing all that, I got really tired.

I will absolutely look at Foresight Linux 3.0 (or even 2.≥6 if there is such a thing), but for now, both of my existing installations have been rendered less than trustworthy. I can’t install it on the memory-richer Fun Computer because Foresight’s installer—an older version of Anaconda—gets overwhelmed by the number of partitions on its drive: ±18, which I agree is a lot. Foresight Linux is in many ways the most fun Linux I’ve ever used. But this time around, it just wasn’t meant to be. Next time around, I hope things’ll be different.

Kubuntu 11.10
I haven’t fired Kubuntu up very often, either. But that’s not Kubuntu’s fault. I liked it when I wrote about it, and I still do. If I want to work in the KDE environment, though, I tend to default to my more familiar Mageia. This may be an over-generalization, but I have found that one KDE distribution is much more like another KDE distribution than, say, one Xfce distribution is like another Xfce distribution. (I’ve found one exception: Netrunner, which is based on Kubuntu, has an inventive mix of pre-installed KDE and GNOME applications. But Netrunner is very cloud-centric, and since I don’t use any cloud apps and don’t really have any intention of starting, I disqualified myself from reviewing it.)

There was one project that I especially liked Kubuntu for: Uncle Jim’s Master’s thesis, which I’m turning into a LaTeX document. AucTeX, an Emacs add-on, wasn’t in Mageia’s repo (it’ll be in Mageia 2), and I had to compile it myself; it was in Kubuntu’s repo, though, and that version seems more able to tell TeX from LaTex. But I haven’t been working on Uncle Jim’s Master’s thesis lately. When I return to that project, though, I’ll have a good excuse to return to Kubuntu.
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Pardus: the end, and a beginning?

It appears that Pardus has come to the end of the road. If you’re interested in the depressing details, you can read what former developer Bahadır Kandemir has to say.

Meanwhile, an interesting thread on the Pardus World Forum is must reading for anybody who cares about Pardus enough to help fork it. (I know “fork” is a good old Open Source word, but “fork it” sounds like “stick a fork in it”, among other things. How about “anybody who cares about Pardus enough to help Mageiafy it”?)

I’ve been working on another longish essay and should have it ready in a few days.

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Linux Mint 12 “Lisa”: GNOME, deep in a dream

Is it melodramatic to say that Linux Mint 12 has been the most anticipated distribution of the year? Maybe, maybe not. Probably. But I was certainly looking forward to it: even more so when I learned about Mint’s proposed reworking of the GNOME Shell. So I installed the release candidate on three computers, and I have the final on two of them.

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Xubuntu 11.10: go, little ‘Buntu, go!

The release announcement was not exactly bashful:

There are a few times when, through hard work and diligence, we get things right. The developers and contributors of Xubuntu 11.10 “Oneiric Ocelot” believe they have it right. They are proud to announce the release of Xubuntu 11.10, “Oneiric Ocelot”. Through the outstanding efforts of all involved, this sleek and smooth release offered for your enjoyment and use.

(The grammar snob within me will be polite for once.) I installed Xubuntu 11.04 when it came out. I liked it a lot, and I think I could have learned to love it. But for various reasons—Foresight Linux, Mageia, Hurricane Irene, KDE, a gray enveloping torpor—I didn’t specifically blog about it. Xubuntu got some heavy name-checking in my Foresight Linux review from last May, and that’s about it.

Before then, I had never spent a lot of time with Xubuntu. I don’t even remember what version(s) I tried, but I wasn’t especially impressed. Until this year, my only—or at least my most—positive experience with Xfce was in an unofficial community mix of Mandriva 2010. That lived for a few months on a since-retired computer that I used for working on during the day while looking after my wife as she slowly recovered from a series of major surgeries. (That computer is going to rise again; all I need is a couple of parts.) I enjoyed it, but went back to a Gnome 2 desktop after a few months. Then, as now, my work is stored on a computer upstairs. I figured out how to mount remote partitions in the fstab on the Work Computer, but for reasons I no longer remember, that stopped working one day, and I couldn’t get it to work ever again. I might not have knocked myself out over it, either. I did perceive the Mandriva 2010 Gnome release as being aesthetically on a higher level than its Xfce release; depending on what you think of Apple, Gnome 2.2x/2.30 on Mandriva might have been the most visually appealing desktop ever. (Honestly, I’ve never spent enough time around Apple products to have strong—or at least intellectually honest—opinions about their legendary interfaces.)

The release of Xfce 4.8 (in January 2011) and Gnome 3 (in April) got me interested in Xfce again. The technical improvements over 4.6 are significant and have been remarked upon. One thing I noticed is that a lot of work has been done to make Xfce look better. To some extent, that is coincidence; SalineOS has proven that an elegant desktop can be constructed on an Xfce 4.6 base. And Linux Mint managed to make their first Debian Edition Xfce release look reasonably Minty. But Kubuntu 11.04 surprised me; it was a visual knockout, the most gorgeous desktop I’d ever seen on any *Buntu.

Now on to 11.10. Have they, indeed, gotten it right?
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A weekend with Kubuntu

I’ve been playing around with Kubuntu 11.10 for four or five days, in between taking our little cat Sammy to the emergency room for little cats and participating in other activities of daily living. Here are my first and second impressions….

Welcome to Kubuntu
I won’t go into much detail about the installation process. I have to assume that my readers have installed at least one *Buntu, and installation hasn’t changed all that much. So my observations will be random.

The new or returning Kubuntista is invited to watch a slideshow during installation. The friendliness and professionalism of these shows has become a hallmark of the Kubuntu experience. In this one, I learned that Gwenview can now export to Flicker, SmugMug, and PicasaWeb. (There was a girl named Gwen in my high school. Later on, I met a girl named Bronwyn, which is an even cooler name.) I don’t know what SmugMug is, though the name evokes that knowing smirk found on the faces of fatuous mediocrities, not that I have any issues or anything. The slideshow also suggests that for more advanced graphics projects, you can download digiKam, which has singleHump camel caps.

Rekonq’s logo—a superhero, or a giant bird, with wings circling the globe—is really cool, whatever it is.

Some of the other logos are purposefully old-fashioned. Kontact is represented by a letter and a paperclip, and LibreOffice by a Selectric. “Installing Additional Software” has a shrink-wrapped box with the K logo! I’m still a bit nostalgic for those days of going into a store and blowing $10 on some CD from Expert Software and getting a bunch of clip art I never ended up finding a use for but still kinda liked having around.

I chose to install the restricted drivers, but not to have Kubuntu download updates during the installation, as that can easily be done later. Nonetheless, it retrieved 23 files from the security repositories. That wasn’t quite what I asked for, but I assume the developers considered these to be important, so I’m cool with it. The fact that they had 23 of these things ready when Kubuntu hadn’t even been in the wild for 48 hours impresses me. I guess nobody went on vacation.
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Mageia, three months (or so) on

If I ever had any regular readers, I’m sure I’ve lost them all by now! We had a bit of weather in Connecticut, as you might have heard; putting up hurricane shutters, and later taking them down, brought me into an uneasy truce with some long-forgotten muscles. I decided to take a night course or two. I’m processing my long-departed Uncle Jim’s thesis into publishable form (it’s about John Milton; or, more precisely, it argues that Milton’s poem Paradise Regained has been consistently underappreciated and misunderstood), which (and this is the point) is handing me a good excuse to learn LaTeX. And I’m doing some Linux-oriented volunteer work, too; I’ll blog about that when I understand it a bit better.

But also, I’ve gone through a temporary lull in distro-hopping. I installed a couple and had trouble with them. And before I write anything negative, I want to start over again and see if any of the problems were self-created. (Gee, ya think??) I did successfully install one and found that I haven’t had a lot to say about it so far. Thursday was Big Bad Beautiful ‘Buntu Day, though, and I’ve got K* and X* all CD-R’d up and ready to roll.
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A message from the Eocene; or, the ballad of WordPerfect

From time to time, I look back fondly on the years when I ran Windows. It doesn’t last; my wife’s computer has XP on it, and XP needs some periodic adjusting, and then it all seems like just a bad dream.

Are there some things about Windows that I miss, though? Well, I always liked PocoMail. When I moved over to Linux, I got used to Evolution (which bears traces of its Groupwise roots; Groupwise was a staple at one of my better jobs). I never loved Evolution, and when I started experimenting with Xfce I gave Claws Mail another try, even though it bills itself as “the email client that bites!”, and this time (a) it worked, and (b) I liked it. I’m not saying it beats PocoMail, but I’m very happy with it. Pretty Good Solitaire is neat, and I especially miss Demons and Thieves, which as far as I know hasn’t been duplicated in the Open Source world. But for me, solitaire is something to do while I’m waiting for the return calls to start pouring in; I don’t take it that seriously. I did not find PySol adequate for my solitaire needs, but I looked at its fork/continuation, PySolFC (Python Solitaire Fan Club Edition), for the first time in a year or more, and it’s just fine now, grotty X11 graphics and backwards mouse pointer and all. It keeps track of the number of games I’ve won, which for some reason seems important. It also keeps track of the number of games I’ve lost, information which of course is of no use to anybody.

But the other day I opened up LibreOffice Writer in my Mageia installation on the laptop. It opened up in about ⅔ of a window, as it always does (it must be a KDE thing, because it does the same thing in my Kubuntu) (or it was transient; weeks later, sometimes it opens up in a full window), and I maximized it, and I realized that I’m really never going to love LibreOffice Writer.

Friends, there is nothing like WordPerfect. And my weltanschauung is so full of weltschmerz that I’ll say there never will be anything like WordPerfect.

This isn’t Windows nostalgia, not strictly. For WordPerfect 5.1 (WP51DOS) was fabulous, and WordPerfect 6.2—the last DOS version—was almost an office suite in itself (“Tables” and “Math” had evolved to a point where they could reasonably do many routine functions that in the Windows suites were offloaded to Quattro Pro). Sometimes it seemed like it was a whole operating system.

WordPerfect is still around. But it lost market share, catastrophically, in the mid-1990s. If it was so good, why did that happen?
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A podcast I liked

I’ve never really made a habit of listening to Linux podcasts, but I happened to download an episode of MintCast the other day. They spent most of it talking to Jonathan Nadeau of Frostbite Systems and, apparently, the Accessible Computing Foundation (which is quite new, and frankly there isn’t a lot there).

Frostbite Systems is a mail-order outfit where, to be snarky about it, you can pay extra for the privilege of owning a computer that doesn’t have that other, expensive operating system pre-installed. Nadeau does a good job telling you why you should consider doing just that, and beyond that, he has some absolutely convincing true-life stories to tell about how Open Source has opened new worlds for people with disabilities.

Here is a link to the MintCast archive page. Great listening.

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Mageia: the return of the Girl Next Door

Like many acolytes in the Temple of the Mighty Penguin, I had my first successful Linux experience with Ubuntu. (It was 7.04. I still have the disk.) I was generally satisfied with Ubuntu, but had some trouble with WiFi, looked for alternatives, enjoyed the exploratory nature of distrohopping, and sometime in 2009 I made my way over to Arch Linux. I liked Arch Linux. I liked commencing a hardworking, creative day with startx. I liked trying to keep up with the new stuff that populated the repos daily, almost hourly. But one day, I ran the pacman -Syu command, which is something like the conary updateall command I waxed hysterical about in a previous post. After that, my Work Computer didn’t work.

It was a strange confluence of events, and I never quite figured it out. As best as I was able to deduce later on, Arch fed me a kernel with a regression in which support for some aging Intel video cards went lacking. This wasn’t something you could fix with a modprobe, either—well, maybe you could, because you’re smart, but I couldn’t, because the screen was totally blank, and I’m not that smart. (I did manage to use the MS-DOS copy command to get a bunch of files from an AT&T 6300—the one with an 8086 processor—onto 5-¼” floppy discs when the video card died, but that’s different from running a modprobe.) Complicating matters was the fact that X.org had just moved on to its 1.7 series, and at first I was inclined to blame the X server.

Anyway, that computer with the primitive Intel video card (it was made by Advanced Digital Logic) was important to my existence. My wife is disabled with a complicated form of nerve damage, and she is extremely sensitive to the noises that moving parts in computers make. The ADL computer didn’t have any moving parts; it was fanless and absolutely silent, and therefore I could camp out in the living room and work (I had a work-from-home job for an academic publisher, but my full-time job was and is looking after my wife). It was also low-powered, with a 1.4 GHz Pentium M chip and a whopping 512 MB of memory. In other words, it was an excellent Linux box.

I could have reinstalled Arch and figured out how to lock pacman into not updating the X server. But, really, I no longer trusted Arch. That might not have been rational, or fair to Arch, but it was the way I felt. (Arch’s documentation is second to none, but the Arch community doesn’t remind me of friendly puppies and teddy bears.) Yeah, I’m a hobbyist and a Linux adventurer, but I have responsibilities, too, capisce? I wasn’t going back to Arch, and I sure wasn’t going to reinstall Windows™, so I got a bunch of distros on CD and tried them, one after the next; some gave me an unacceptably low-resolution display, and more didn’t work at all.

Then, as I was running out of hope, I tried Mandriva. Mandriva 2010 was fairly new at the time (all this happened in November 2009, or maybe December), but it still had X.org 1.6. It also probably had some nice patches in the kernel, or a more proven kernel, or something; as I was to learn, Mandriva’s hardware support was remarkable. But at the time I understood less about Linux than I do now, especially things like kernel mods (which I’m still not exactly well-versed in) and I couldn’t make sense out of all the various information that was coming my way. Anyway, Mandriva worked perfectly on the Work Computer, and basically kept me in business.
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