Unplug the mouse, you don’t need it any more… #applicationoftheweek

We’re tethered to our computers these days.  Tethered by the mouse.  That thing that hovers under our hand and slows us down as we hunt for just the right icon, the right location in the start menu for that programme that we’ve just installed.  Today’s application of the week takes away a lot of that hunting.  So, without further preamble, I’d like to introduce Launchy (www.launchy.net)

One of the things I miss when moving from Linux (home) to Windows (work) is the ability to launch programmes with a few keystrokes.  In every Linux installation I’ve ever tried, the combination Alt-F2 brings up a little dialog box into which you can start typing the name of a programme or the path to a file and then hit enter to run/navigate/etc.  I’ve been caught trying to do this a few times on Windows and wondering why nothing was happening.

Y’see the first computer I had was an Acorn Electron.  Aside from having to load stuff from cassette tape and find typos in the BASIC listings they’d print in magazine, one of it’s defining features was the distinct lack of a mouse.  Fast-forward a few years and I inherited an IBM 286 from my Dad when he upgraded the office computers.  It ran Windows 3.1 (slowly) and didn’t have a mouse (I think it was run over by a boom lift in my Dad’s warehouse).  So I learned keyboard shortcuts.  It’s stood me in good stead:  When they unveiled Office 2007 with the big shiny button instead of the File menu, I was  happy to find that Ctrl-O still opened files and Ctrl-S saved them.  Anything that I *could* find then was a bonus.
But I digress.  Launchy.  Yes.  To quote Launchy’s website…

“Launchy is a free cross-platform utility designed to help you forget about your start menu, the icons on your desktop, and even your file manager.

Launchy indexes the programs in your start menu and can launch your documents, project files, folders, and bookmarks with just a few keystrokes!”

Launchy Screenshot

It adds functionality that’s lost in Windows and adds a turbo-boost to the functionality that’s already there in Linux.

First time you run Launchy, it searches your Start menu (on Windows) – and a few other locations, like the Desktop – for programmes to run and then you choose which to run by typing their name.  First time you run a given programme you might have to type pretty much the full name before it twigs which one you’re after.  Second time, unless you’ve got a couple of programmes with very similar names, you’re down to one or two letters.

Testing requirements at work mean I’ve got Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 installed on my computer.  Swapping between them is a pain in the backside.  First time I used Launchy to run Word 2010 I had to type in pretty much all of “Microsoft Word 2010” so it got the right one.  Now it’s on the ball and I’ve just got to hit “w”.  Outlook is now “o”, Chrome is “c” and so on.  Simplicity itself.

Instead of stopping what you’re doing, reaching for the mouse, clicking “Start” then “Programmes” and so on and so forth, all you have to do is press Alt-Space (the default shortcut for launching Launchy, this can be changed under Options) and type the first few letters of the software you need.  Much, much faster.

The other thing it brings is some much-needed good looks to the process.  The best that can be said about the default Linux behaviour is that it’s “functional”.  Launchy is skinnable and there are currently lots of skins to change Launchy’s appearance (I stopped counting at 90).  So no matter what your OS theme, colours or wallpaper, there’s a skin that will suit.  The default’s pretty cool, too.

Then there’s the plugins.  Not content with just making it easier for you to run programmes there’s all sorts of stuff that extend Launchy’s functionality.  Shutdown your computer with a few keystrokes, integration with the Todoist.com task manager, Python and .NET scriptability…  Fantastic.

Launchy is a beautifully simple programme to work with, it runs in the background in a most unobtrusive way, only appearing when summoned to work it’s magic.  It doesn’t need admin rights to install, will happily sit in your Home directory, works on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.

This is one of those programmes that, once you’ve used it for a while, you don’t know how you lived without it.  I’m going to include it in our default build here at work

Other keyboard-based control programmes are out there.  Next week I’ll take a look at one that’s aimed more toward developers…

Application of the Week – yWriter (#amwriting @spacejock)

We’re all looking for that application that makes our lives easier, helps us do what we need to do without getting in the way with irritating little popups, wizards, and “helpful” suggestions.  “It looks like you’re writing a novel!  Would you like some help with that?”  Yes, Clippy, it would be most helpful if you’d just bugger off and never come back!yWriter, for me, is that application.  It does exactly what I need, doesn’t get in the way, gives me very useful feedback and runs on both of my computers – the Windows box at work and the Linux box at home.

yWriter is the brainchild of the author and programmer Simon Haynes.  You can find him and his work over at http://www.spacejock.com.  As an author himself, the good Mister Haynes knew what he needed when writing his Hal Spacejock novels and couldn’t find it available off the shelf.  So he wrote it.  Now 5 versions down the line, this wonderful tool is just one of many on his (virtual) shelf and it is incredibly useful.

Let’s take a spin through the features.When you open the software you’re presented with a brief splash screen.  If it’s the first time you’ve run yWriter, you’ll be given the option to run through the “New Project Wizard”.  This is the first and only time you’ll be prompted to run a wizard, after that they’re entirely optional.  This just sets up your first project, puts it in the folder of your choice, things like that.  I’d recommend you install Dropbox if you haven’t yet, set your projects up inside a Dropbox-synchronised folder and then you’ve got automatic off-site backups that you can access from anywhere in the world.

yWriter Main Screen

The main interface.  Pick a project, any project.  Down the left you’ll have your chapters, in the middle the scenes in those chapters, at the bottom the notes on the scenes/chapters.  Simple.  And this brings us to the key organisational gem of this software – the Scene.  Instead of writing your novel as one huge slab of text (as you might if you’re using Word without Master and Sub- Documents), you break it down into easy-to-manage scenes.  This is fantastic for turning the task of writing, say, 50,000 words in a month (*cough* http://www.nanowrimo.org *cough*) into the far simpler task of writing 50 scenes, each around a thousand words long.  Scenes exist within Chapters, Chapters within Sections, Sections within a Project.  Simple.  Everything is movable – re-order chapters, re-order sections, move scenes around, whatever you need to do!  Each scene keeps a running total of how many words it’s got, chapters add those up, projects give you a grand total of how many words they contain.  The software also keeps a track of how many words you’ve written in a day – when you start editing, this number quickly goes into the negative and that can be a little depressing.

As you can see, you can keep track of characters (major and minor), locations, items, notes on the scene, goals (and conflicts and outcomes)…  So far I’ve just scratched the surface of what this software can do but each time I find something new, it’s something more helpful than before.  I haven’t even touched on storyboarding and scene cards yet!

If you find you don’t need a scene, don’t delete it!  Mark it as “Unused” and it won’t count towards your grand total, won’t be included in any exports.  You can mark entire chapters this way.  My project setup includes a chapter called “I’d like to use this, just not sure where” and contains those scenes that have the germ of a good idea but no real place in the overall story as yet.
Now, the price.  You can spend a lot on software to write novels.  Microsoft Office isn’t cheap, Open Office is free  – and is the word-processor-of-choice for the Writer’s Cafe suite (http://www.writerscafe.co.uk £24 at the time of writing, Linux, Mac and Windows).  Scrivener, one of the main sponsors of NaNoWriMo (http://www.literatureandlatte.com £30, only available for Macs at the moment but there’s a beta for Windows).  Okay, so not exactly “a lot”, but it’s certainly a lot more than yWriter.  It’s free.  As in costs nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And for that, what have you got to lose?  Get it downloaded and check it out.

On Windows, you’ll need a machine with the latest .NET libraries installed to get it working.  On Linux it works with Mono 2.4 or better.  I’m installing it on my newly-built CrunchBang box here at the office at the moment.

Another very good reason to visit www.spacejock.com – as if yWriter and the rest of the collection of applications there isn’t enough – is the Hal Spacejock series of books.  Just to get you hooked, and to keep you coming back for another fix, the first one’s only $1.99.  Of course, you’ll want to get the lot for your eBook reader, so this link will take you straight to the shop: http://www.spacejock.com.au/HalSpacejockEbooks.html

So, he’s an author, a programmer, a cyclist and an all-round great guy.  If I’ve had trouble with yWriter, he’s responded to tweets and emails quickly and we’ve got everything resolved.

Software: http://www.spacejock.com

Novels: http://www.spacejock.com.au

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/spacejock