Tools for writing

I’m always on the lookout for new tools that might help me with my writing and I like to experiment with new platforms and processes that could be useful, or even just fun. Up until now I’ve used LibreOffice as my main writing platform, although I’ve also experimented with Abiword, Calligra, Lyx and of course, Word. Of all of them, LibreOffice is what makes me happiest. However, even with LibreOffice, I still find myself getting distracted with the formatting options, rather than using my time to simply write. Lyx is the document processor that is probably best for keeping you focused on writing because it abstracts out all of the formatting options but I always felt like it was a bit like trying to kill a mosquito with a canon. A bit too much power for my needs.

This is why I’m attracted to writing in plain text, which has always appealed to me for a number of reasons, the chief one being that .txt will never go away. It will never be deprecated and operating systems will never drop support for it. There are also other reasons for liking the idea of writing in plain text, including cross-platform functionality, meaning that I’d be able to edit my work on iOS, Windows, Android, OSX or Linux. For a while, I tried Springpad but never felt comfortable with it as a writing platform (I still use it for notes, a task for which it works very well).

Recently however, I’ve come across Markdown and MultiMarkDown (MMD), which allow you to write in plain text but export to a variety of formats (primarily HTML, but with support for PDF and OpenDocument). MultiMarkDown has additional support for writers, including footnotes and tables, which are not included in the feature set of Markdown. The idea is that you write in plain text and therefore avoid the distractions that come with having the formatting options available. It’s enough to specify that a piece of text is a 1st, 2nd or 3rd level heading, or that it should be emphasised in bold or italic text, or that it is an item in an ordered or unordered list. You shouldn’t have to worry if your bullet is a circle or a square, or how far it should be indented, or what font size the heading should be. Markdown allows you to just write, and to leave the formatting up to the programme.

When I learned about Markdown I started exploring the options for clients that support it and was quite surprised to find quite a few, including some online platforms (Authorea, Editorially and Draft). I decided against exploring the online editors in any detail since one of my criteria is that I need to be able to write when I’m offline. Of course, one of the benefits of the online editors is that they are built for collaborative work, which is more complicated to do with an offline editor (you can, using Dropbox or another syncing service, but then you run into problems with versioning, etc.). I do use Google Drive extensively in my work with students and colleagues but with the understanding that when I’m working with those groups I’m always online.

I recently came across UberWriter, an open source app written for Ubuntu, which I’ve been using for a few days now and I have to say that I’m really enjoying writing with it. Not only is it “distraction free” in the sense of removing the formatting options but I’ve found that the complete lack of preferences has meant that I haven’t had to spend any time configuring it. I usually spend a lot of time configuring things so that it looks right. The user interface is minimalist and clean, making me actually want to write. I also really like the Focus mode, which greys out all of the text except the sentence I’m working on, which may not sound like much but really does help me to focus. UberWriter just works. Note: I also looked at ReText but decided that, for me anyway, UberWriter just had a qualitatively better “feel” to it.

uberwriter

So, my plan for now is to use UberWriter and MarkDown to create the first few drafts of my work and then export to ODT when it’s ready for final formatting and submission to journals. If they want the submission in Word, then it’s a simple process of saving to .doc.

Update: Also check out this podcast from In Beta on tools for writing. Some of the tools from this post are covered in more detail.

KDE 4.3 is awesome

It’s been a busy few weeks at the university, with mid-year assessment (in all it’s various forms) having to take precedence over everything else.  Now that it’s over and students are on holiday, I’ve finally gotten around to doing the things I’ve been putting off for a while…like installing the beta version of KDE 4.3 on Kubuntu Jaunty.

The 4.x series of the desktop is getting more and more impressive with every iteration, so much so that I felt I needed to put it on show a little.  I’ve been playing around with it for a few days now and while it’s still a little buggy, it’s stable enough for me.  In this post, I’m going to go through some of the applications I use most often, and give my own thoughts about why I’m loving this update.

Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Folder view with expanding folders
Folder view with expanding folders

Desktop.  The Folder view widgets on the desktop do a great job of keeping it clean and useful, and I love the way they expand on mouseover to make navigation really easy and intuitive.  The Lancelot menu is brilliant, keeping unused applications out of the way, but making it simple to find them when needed.

Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views

File management.  There was a lot of controversy when the KDE developers decided to
create Dolphin and replace Konqueror as the default file manager, but it was clearly the right move.  There are a couple of things that I love about Dolphin, including the Information side panel, split view mode, Terminal view and the integration of Nepomuk semantic search.

OpenOffice.org word processor
OpenOffice.org word processor

Work stuff.  I tried using KOffice2 even though it’s a platform release (because it looks so very cool), but there are a few issues that keep me from switching from OpenOffice.org, the main one being that it doesn’t support OpenDocument or MS Word files as well as OpenOffice does, and the fonts look terrible.

BasKet note taking application (showing default example)
BasKet note taking application (showing default example)

I’ve installed and am using BasKet notepads for my note taking application, which unfortunately is still a KDE 3.5 application.  There were some concerns about the project stalling when the lead developer decided that he couldn’t continue maintaining it, but it seems as if it’s been taken up by others and may yet have a future.  I hope so because it’s a great application, even in it’s current state.  A project to watch out for in this field is SemNotes, a semantic note taking application being built on Nepomuk (see here for screencast).

Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)
Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)

Okular is a universal document viewer, although I don’t use if for much other than PDFs.  The feature I like most is the ability to annotate documents, although the default colour scheme of the notes isn”t great.

Calendar in Kontact
Calendar in Kontact

I used to use Kontact for email for the longest time but then I switched to Thunderbird for a while, then Spicebird and finally back to Kontact.  In terms of functionality, nothing comes close to it right now.  I’d like to say that I use Akkregator for my feeds, but it’s missing something that I can’t quite put my finger on.  The interface also hasn’t changed much in the past few years and it seems very slow.

Firefox web browser
Firefox web browser

I have to admit that I’m using the 3.5 preview release of Firefox as the web browser, rather than Konqueror.  While Konqueror was awesome a few years ago, it hasn’t kept up with the changes on the web, and is really starting to show it’s age.  There’s a lot happening at Mozilla that Konqueror jsut can’t keep up with and unless there’s a radical change of pace in it’s development, I can’t imagine using it again.

Amarok media player
Amarok media player

Multimedia.  I’m always switching between different media players, but generally I’ve been keen on Songbird and Amarok for managing my whole library, and Audacious as a light-weight player for quickly playing single files.  Gwenview (the image viewer) has been given an overhaul and

Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view
Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view

does a brilliant job of managing image libraries.  Amarok is a bit buggy right now (although I am running the beta version of 2.1) and it’s still lacking some functionality that was present in 1 (the port to Qt4 means a lot of catching up has to be done), which is why I use Songbird on occasion.  But as with other KDE apps right now, it’s in a state of transition and every release is building on the solid platform that was laid down with 2.0.

Marble desktop globe showing satelite view
Marble desktop globe showing satelite view

Marble.  This is a great tool that’s something along the lines of Google Earth and Maps, but it’s open and a native KDE application.  I’ve included these screenshots showing a satelite view, as well as a

Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view
Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view

street view using Open Streetmap.  It’s already got Wikipedia and Flickr integration for additional information, as well as being able to overlay additional data, like temperature and precipitation maps.  It’s a young project that’s come really far and has the capability to be incorporated into other KDE apps, like using it together with geo-tagging photos in Digikam.

The one thing that I can’t find anywhere is a decent podcast catcher…something like Gpodder for Gnome, but native to KDE.  I know that Amarok has one but it’s not working for me and besides, it’s lacking the finishing touches that would win me over.  Little things like being able to read a summary of the podcast would be so useful but is currently impossible.

I’m also not a fan of Kpackagekit, as it’s still very much in development and doesn’t always work very well.  Generally the command line is quicker anyway, but there’s always Synaptic if a GUI is needed.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of some of the apps that i use and while most of them are still in beta, there’s so much happening in KDE right now that this post will be outdated very shortly.  Sigh…

If you’re interested in following the developments in KDE, check out KDE.News