2016-06-21

mdlbear: the positively imaginary half of a cubic mandelbrot set (Default)

As I mentioned about a week ago, I've been trying to write more. And since my current obsession is a program called xmonad, well, ...

This is incomplete: it's about the first day's worth (I've been trying to write about 500 words per day). Comments and suggestions are, of course, welcome.

 

My new 27" monitors arrived at work; I took advantage of the change to rearrange my work space. Before, it was the set-up I've had for most of the last three years -- monitor in front on a stand, second monitor on the right, and my laptop on the left. The new laptop, however, has a decent keyboard (with trackpoint and three buttons), and the monitors between them occupy about 2/3 of the desk.

The new arrangement has the laptop dock under the "middle" monitor; the laptop, being a business-class Dell, has both a pointing stick and a middle "mouse" button. The laptop's keyboard is decent enough that it can replace the thinkpad keyboard I've been using for the last couple of years -- it's a high-end Dell, and has both a pointing stick and a middle button. (The middle button has part of the Unix desktop environment since the mid 1980s; it means "paste", and I use it all the time.) The monitors are about 50% bigger, pixel-wise, than the laptop, and are arranged "traditionally" with the laptop on the left.

You can probably see the problem with this arrangement. The total workspace is about 7000 pixels wide, and it's not even arranged in a straight line -- to get from the laptop to the "middle" monitor you have to move the cursor to the right, but the natural direction would be straight up. What's more, when you undock the laptop the whole thing collapses down to a "mere" 1920x1080. It's no wonder that most of the programmers in my team have opted for a single 30" monitor, and keep their laptop (almost invariably a mac) closed while they're using it.

Fortunately, I anticipated this problem months ago, and started using a window manager called xmonad.

 

One of the things I love most about Linux is the fact that the program that manages the layout of the screen and the behavior and appearance of the windows on it is not part of the operating system. It's a separate program, sensibly called a "window manager", and it runs in user space as a perfectly ordinary application that just happens to have a couple of extra hooks into X, which is the (also ordinary) program that actually controls the display, the keyboard, and the mouse.

Being an ordinary program -- and not even a terribly complicated one -- anybody can write one, and many people have. For a long time I was using one called TWM (Tabbed Window Manager, but the T originally stood for Tom's). Later I started using CTWM (Claude's Tabbed Window Manager), because it introduced the then unfamiliar notion of multiple workspaces. (Before CTWM, these could only be found in an experimental system at Xerox where they were called "rooms". Apple introduced them decades later, as part of MacOS X.)

You've probably heard of Gnome, KDE, and Ubuntu's horrible Unity desktop environments. Down at the bottom, they're just window managers plus a couple of utilities for doing things like putting up the familiar bar (Gnome calls it a "panel") full of menus, launcher buttons, clocks and other widgets. You can, in fact, run gnome-panel under any window manager, and I did for a while. They also include a "session manager", which handles things like starting the panel and making sure that applications get notified when you log out, so that they can save their state and exit cleanly. I've been using Gnome for years, and loved it for its configurability.

But Gnome's configurability comes with a cost -- every time you move to a new computer, you have to spend an hour clicking around in control panels and property windows to get everything set up the way you like it. And every time there's a major upgrade, something is a little different. It's a cost I no longer have to pay.


Part 2

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