Dell XPS 13 and HDMI Sound

When players collide Nathan Rupert via Compfight

I’ve recently taken to watching movies on line through Amazon’s streaming video. I can watch them just fine on my Dell XPS with Ubuntu. However, I wanted to try and push them to my HDTV and watch them on a large screen.

When I tried it, the video was fine, but no audio. Then I found this blog post. Your mileage may vary, but for me, I just told the audio settings to use the HDMI output and it worked fine. Now I can watch movies on my big screen TV.

I did need to purchase an HDMI rat tail adapter and some HDMI cable, to make this possible. That was not inexpensive. I was able to get these items at my local Best Buy.

Another thing I did related to this, was purchase the NFL pre-season pass for $20.00 so I can watch all the pre-season games on demand. Normally I’m not that big of an NFL fan, but so many of my favorite BSU football players are on different teams this year, I wanted to see how they did in professional football. This too works fine on the Dell.

Sometimes You Write, Sometimes You Give Back

I’ve been doing two writing related things this week since returning from my summer vacation. Finishing my first draft of Starveyors and helping to redefine how I will write my next novel. Sometimes you write and sometimes you help others write. Either you help them learn the craft, or you help create a new tool that will help them write more efficiently.

I mentioned a while back that I found a new writing tool for Linux. Plume Creator is an Open Source project that is available on all three operating systems – Linux, Mac and Windows. I’ve recently moved to Linux and so I’ve been looking for something similar to Scrivener to write my novels in. Plume Creator is not a Scrivener clone, but it does work in a similar manner.

I’ve been working with the developer – Cyril Jacquet, to test and improve Plume Creator to make it the best free writing tool on any operating system. It’s a slow process. Cyril is trying new things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but his willingness to keep working at it is really impressive to me. All I’m doing is trying to spot errors so he can squish the bugs and make the program better in the process. There are others helping too, because we all want a better program. This is the essence of Open Source programming, people volunteering their time and effort to make something that we all can use and benefit from.

This weekend I had so much fun watching Cyril change the program and make it better that I neglected to work on my novel. I’ll have to double down to finish up the novel. However, the time spent helping Cyril improve Plume Creator, will help other writers down the line. My next novel, which I will begin in a matter of days, will be completely written in Plume Creator. Programmers call this eating their own dog food.

Cyril has released a new beta version of Plume Creator. If you would like to take it for a test spin and let him know what you think, he’d really appreciate it. Since this program is in heavy development, some parts are not working yet. The program runs on Linux, Mac and Windows.

Leaving Apple for Linux

Tux PhonepaperCreative Commons License mlabowicz via Compfight

When I got my new Dell laptop and put Ubuntu on it, I was doing more than just setting up a new laptop. I was defecting from the most popular creative arts platform for one that is mostly known for being a geek’s dream. Apple’s marketing machine has always catered to the rich and to the creative. So it’s not surprising that some of the best creative arts tools are only available on the Mac. But times are changing.

More and more creatives are realizing that Apple may not be as shinny as they first appeared. For me it was definitely about the shinny at first. I was attracted to the polished white plastic lines of the MacBook. It’s no myth that Apple makes beautiful products. But over time, the shinny wears off and you start to realize that no matter when you buy a new shinny product, it is always a few months away from being obsolete. I’m not rich enough or vane enough to keep up with that treadmill.

After six years of mostly loyal use, I retired the MacBook when it began to physically fall apart and was no longer supported by Apple. In this business, six years is a lifetime. So you know the product was well built to have lasted that long.

Forced with looking around for my next laptop, I considered a new MacBook. After all, they now make the most awesome laptop ever invented – the Air. It would have been so easy to just get the Air and carry on with my writing. Then I started to look at what reasons were keeping me on the Mac platform. I-tunes? Nope, never use it. I-Bookstore? Nope, never use it. Mac apps? Nope, never use them. I-Phone? Nope, don’t have one. So exactly why was I still on a Mac? Scrivener.

The one totally awesome creative tool that was keeping me on the Mac was a program not made by Apple. Huh. Could I get Scrivener for Windows? Yes. Could I get Scrivener for Linux? Not really, but kinda maybe someday. That’s when it started to be clear to me that I didn’t really need to get an Air. I mean one program does not a loyal customer make. I don’t need Scrivener to write novels. Does it make things easier for that task? Yes, it sure does. But there were other programs that made writing easier out there, I didn’t have to run with the cool kids and only use Scrivener.

Then I found a program that worked on all platforms and was being built from the ground up for writers, just like Scrivener had been. I was one of the early adopters of Scrivener. But the programmer never offered to let me help him make it better. It was not an Open Source project after all. The program that I found is called Plume Creator and I’ve been asked to help the developer make it better by testing it and reporting bugs and offering suggestions for improving it. In other words, Plume Creator was an Open Source project.

So I had a decision to make. Was I going to continue to live in a walled garden where the only application I truly used was not open source or was I going to return to my Linux roots and be a force of positive change? Easy decision. I went back to Linux.

It’s not just one unknown writer turning away from Apple products and moving to Linux. There are other writers and film makers, musicians and artists making the same move every day. You may not hear about them in the news, but they are there. Most of us are moving so that we can have the freedom to build our own tools and be creative bad-asses on a platform that doesn’t shut us out or fence us in.

Join us. If you dare.

Loading the Dell XPS 13 with Ubuntu

What follows is a step-by-step look at installing Ubuntu on a new Dell laptop. If that’s not your bag, check out some other posts listed on my About page. 

I purchased the base model XPS 13 from the Dell website and paid the $25.00 for next business day shipping. It was worth it. I ordered the laptop on the 4th of July, an American holiday and it arrived at my door on the 6th. Fantastic.

In the day and a half prior to its arrival, I downloaded the 64 bit version of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and used the Pen Drive Linux’s Windows USB creator program as suggested by this page on the Ubuntu website. This information was simple to follow and resulted in a USB stick that was ready to install Linux.

When I unboxed the laptop, it was fully charged. As a precaution, I plugged it into the wall charger for the duration of the install. I then plugged in the USB stick to the Left side USB 2.0 socket. This little tidbit was gleaned from a forum on the Ubuntu site. Don’t use the right hand side’s USB 3.0 for booting.

I then turned on the laptop, and pressed down on F2. This brought up the firmware boot loader. I changed it to boot from the USB stick. Otherwise, it would have booted into Windows. It worked flawlessly on reboot. The Ubuntu installer came up and I started the installation. It was fast, both due to the speedy processor and it being 64 bit. Part of the installation was to set the WiFi connection. Easy and it worked perfectly. Before rebooting into Ubuntu, be sure to change the boot loader back to boot from the Hard Drive.

After I rebooted, I started the updates and waited for several hundred packages to download and install. This also went flawlessly and was super fast. The final step was to install the special XPS fixes that Ubuntu and Dell developed as part of their Sputnik project. This also was super easy and went flawlessly. After the reboot, the computer was working perfectly including the track pad. (LINK UPDATED: 13 SEP 2012) Here is the forum post that tells you how to use the PPA’s from Kamal Mustafa Canonical that let the track pad work. The install went off without a hitch and I never had to see Windows. ;-)

I’ll have more to say about the laptop itself and how well it works with Ubuntu in future posts. My initial impression is pretty positive. I like how small it is and I love how fast Ubuntu is on the machine.

My Linux Story

I know that Apple is enjoying a surge in its user base these days and gaining new fans all the time, but not me. I’m a corner case when it comes to Proprietary computers. I’m that zealot user always quoted by the fanboys who insists on owning FREE (as in LIBERTY) and OPEN software. I’ve been using Linux for over a decade now and consider myself a pretty savvy computer user. I use Windows every day at work and have to suppress my swearing at it all the time. I’ve owned a Macbook laptop for six years so I’ve seen what OS X has going for it. I know the competition and I know the alternative and this user is always going to go with the alternative.

I rarely trust anyone’s opinion on operating systems who has only used Windows or only used OS X and never used a modern Linux distribution on a regular basis. Because they just don’t have enough time on Linux to have formed their own opinion. Most people will repeat FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) that either Apple or Microsoft champions have been repeating ad-nausea for decades. Which I can totally understand. I mean who the hell has the time to reformat their everyday computer and learn something new and different? Well, I had the time. But that was long ago and far away.

When I took the time to learn something different it was because my current OS was just not working at all. I was running Windows 95 and OS-2 Warp at the time. Both OSes were new and shiny but neither one was perfect. Windows 95 was prone to crashing whenever I used it too hard. As in building huge, static web sites or writing a several hundred page novel. OS-2 Warp was more stable, but had no programs. Dissatisfied with both choices, I decided to spring for a boxed version of Red Hat Linux, desperate to find an OS that worked.

I had an extra PC and decided to load Red Hat on it to test it out. But I couldn’t get it to work. Worse than that, I found that all of my DOS knowledge was useless on a Unix variant. I soon realized that I would have to learn Unix if I were going to get it loaded. That was a huge road block that nobody I knew at the time was willing to push through. Seriously? Read books and learn all kinds of obscure commands just to make the OS useful? Hell no! Who has the time for that nonsense? I did. You see, nothing I had was working for me. I had a reason to leave.

Needless to say, I did make a concerted effort to learn Linux from the terminal up. It was not easy. I had to seek out other nerds to help me. But do you know what I found when I went looking for help? I found a community of shinning people who were eager to show me the ropes and to have me learn their obscure terminal commands. I found Linux User Groups or LUGs to help me get over that steep learning curve. It was at one of these LUGs that I began to learn about why Linux existed. Turns out there was a whole subtext to it that was fascinating and that I had never heard of before. I began reading such subversive books as The Cluetrain Manifesto and Rebel Code; histories of the Free Software Movement and Linux. Only then did I start to realize how powerful the free and open solutions could be. I’ve been a supporter of these ideals ever since.

These days people don’t have a reason to change operating systems. Windows and Mac OS just work. In fact, they work so easily, in most cases you can jump from one to the other and never miss a beat. So why would anyone ever bother to learn a third OS? Especially, if all those horrible FUD stories are true. Linux is for nerds and it’s hard to use and it doesn’t run software that I’m familiar with, there are no games and you have to build programs from scratch to use them, oh the humanity! It’s no wonder that people are scared to death to even try Linux these days.

Which is really ironic to me. Do you know why? Because all of those things are false now. Linux is not just for nerds anymore. It’s easier to install than Windows. Many of the programs you are familiar with either have Linux equivalents or have Linux versions and the way you load them on the OS is the exact same way you load them on OS X. Through a software store. Don’t tell anyone but Steam is coming to Linux soon and more game vendors are coming to the platform than ever before. So what exactly was that reason you were so afraid of before?

I’m not saying that everyone should turn in their Macs or reformat their Windows machines to run Linux. We all need to use what we like and what we are familiar with. But before you spread the FUD about Linux, you had better be prepared to try it out first. Because if you don’t, people like me will always laugh at your ignorance. At the very least, take the time to read The Cluetrain Manifesto or Free for All or Rebel Code. Understand why someone would want to use an Open system. You may start to second guess your own choice in OS. But probably not. What is more likely, is that you will respect my decision to run Linux and stop spreading the FUD, and that would be just awesome.

Laptop Decision

I’m going forward with purchasing the Dell XPS 13. My Macbook is dying and I leave for vacation next week. I plan on loading the special version of Ubuntu that the Dell project Sputnik has created. My reasoning for this is that they have worked closely with Ubuntu and the hardware manufacturers to guarantee that Linux works with every component of this laptop.

There might be better ultrabook laptops on the market, but none of their OEMs are actively supporting Linux in any meaningful way. I’d have to settle for less than usable components if I put Linux on one of them. I prefer to have my Linux ultrabook actually work with Linux. There are OEMs that make Linux specific laptops, but none of them make a thin, light weight and powerful laptop that doesn’t look like a brick. The XPS is many things, but ugly is not one of them.

This will be my first Dell computer. I’m already dreading the looks I’ll get on the HP campus but you know, HP is not supporting Linux on their ultrabooks. If they were, I’d be getting an Spectre XT laptop. I think it’s important to support venders that support Open Source and in particular, Linux. Without putting my money where my mouth is I can’t really call myself an advocate of Open Source. Right now, Dell is being a responsible vendor, so they get my money and my support.


Maybe in a few years time when this new XPS 13 is ready to be replaced, more vendors will be supporting Linux and I’ll try another vendor’s laptop. But until then, I’m getting a Dell. I’ll be documenting my adventures with this laptop here on the blog. So if you find yourself curious about how my experience goes, do come back and find out.

(I work for a contractor at HP Boise. I do not work for HP.)

Linux Laptop Search

My current writing laptop is an old, first run Intel MacBook. The track pad button is dying and so is the screen. I don’t have very long to search for and replace it with a new laptop. Luckily, I’ve started writing my files to Dropbox; so I shouldn’t lose any data when the HDD crashes.

My search for a replacement laptop has been on for many months now. I keep going back and forth between a MacBook Air and a Windows laptop that I can wipe and run Linux on. The only viable reason for me to go with the MacBook is that I really love using Scrivener. Linux support for that application is pretty much non-existent. I’ve never been an Apple fan and my dislike of Microsoft is legendary. Meanwhile, nothing has given me more pure joy in the past ten years than using Linux.

This weekend I ran across an interesting article while Googling for Linux compatible ultrabooks. Apparently Dell has started a black ops project (now in the white world) with the objective of getting Linux developers to use their laptops, specifically the new XPS 13 ultrabook. The project is known as Sputnik and it involves hardware manufacturers and of course Canonical, who make Ubuntu Linux. You can follow the blog of Barton George the Sputnik leader. Here is a short interview with Barton.

It’s a little odd that they picked an ultrabook to showcase as a developer platform, I think future versions of Sputnik will run on more robust laptops. I love that they did start on the XPS 13, because that’s the type of laptop I was looking to purchase. It’s good to know that Ubuntu 12.04, or at least their image of it, works fine with all the hardware on that laptop. Including the touch pad as of a week ago.

I still have not made up my mind, but as of today, I’m leaning heavily towards the Dell XPS 13 for my next writing laptop. You can check out reviews of this laptop everywhere, but two of the best are here and here.

As for not being able to use Scrivener, well you know, life existed before that program. I don’t really need the hand holding it offers writers. Let’s face it, I use Linux. I’m not going to whimper about much when it comes to software. I’ll probably use a combination of Focus Writer, Open Office and Sigil to get the job done. At this point, I’m really looking forward to using Linux full time again.

You must create a USB boot disc with the Sputnik ISO. Here is a program to assist with that. Also, Ubuntu has a forum dedicated to Dell installations. The later entries have some information about the Sputnik ISO.

How I Use Scrivener to Write a Novel Part One

Part Two

* Disclaimer – I no longer use Scrivener. I now use LibreWrite. While I’m thrilled if you enjoy this post about Scrivener, I really can’t help you with any questions on it. Scrivener is a great program if you are on Mac or Windows, but now I’m on Linux and there is no official Linux port. Please don’t ask me for advice on this post from 2012.

When you are first starting out writing a novel and are not set in your ways, you tend to look closely at how other writers ply their craft. This includes how they structure their novels and what software programs they use. Every writer is different and we all have our own way of doing things. The only way you are going to discover what works for you is to try the methods that others use and see if you like them.

For this post I’m showing screen shots of my actual Work In Progress (WIP), the Space Opera novel, Starveyors. There may be spoilers in the images. If you are a reader and don’t want to have the story ruined for you, perhaps you should skip this post. I’ll do my best to not show critical moments, but if you study these images, you could glean quite a bit about the story. You have been warned.


Many writers have discovered Scrivener and have adopted it as their primary writing tool. I first used it while it was still in beta and realized that the programmer behind it really understood a writer’s needs. There were other Mac based writing programs like Scrivener, but Scrivener was clearly the better of them in my mind. When it finally was available for purchase I began using it for several of my novels.

Scrivener was born on the Mac platform and has now been ported to Windows. The Windows version is slightly behind the Mac in features, but its completely usable and stable. The Windows version has been ported to run on Linux with Wine. Right now its only available as a beta download and expires after a couple of months. So in order to use it on Linux, you have to re-install it periodically. It is also not officially supported by Literature and Latte.

You can get Scrivener for Linux here:

You can get Scrivener for Windows and Mac here:

The Windows and Mac versions are free for a trial period but once you decide to go with them, the price is only $40.00 USD. Quite the bargain, if you ask me.

Setting Up Scrivener

I’m not going to do a basic Scrivener tutorial in this post. There are many such tutorials available on the web, including some great screen casts on the Scrivener web site. I will assume that you already know your way around the program and are more interested in how I use it to write a novel.

Everyone uses this program in their own way and few of us use all the features so if I fail to mention something that you find critical, tell me about it in the comments and then we’ll all know about it.


The first thing I do when I start a new novel in Scrivener is create templates for scenes and for character sketches. The scene template is called every time I start a new scene and it has the font that I prefer to write in. That way I don’t have to reset all that for each scene I write.

Scenes are the component parts of a chapter. Chapter One: Scene 1 – the maid finds a body; Scene 2 – the police show up; Scene 3 – Our intrepid detective arrives and discovers a clue. End of Chapter One. In this example it’s pretty clear the order of the scenes. But when you are deep in a novel and the scenes are not always as obviously sequential, it helps to be able to reorder them. Many times each scene is in a different location or takes place at a different time, like our Mystery example.

Scrivener keeps all these scenes as separate files so that you can move them around in whatever order you like. Then it binds them all together in the compile stage to create the linear story that is a proper novel. That’s a different way to go about things than forcing you to write in order, just like the reader reads it. Word and other word processors are linear and less forgiving when you want to switch around the order of your scenes.

The Character Sketch I use is the default one that comes when you start a novel project in Scrivener. I just fill it in and add to it as needed. Same for the Setting Sketch template. Here is a shot of my current templates. All three are under the Template Sheets folder in the Binder – screen left bottom, highlighted. * Click on all images for larger versions.

When you start a new chapter folder and go to add a document, you can then select your Scene Template and its already set up the way you like it. Very convenient.

Character Sketches

A bit more about the Character Sketches. Below is a view of the sketch I started for Pentos, a politician in Starveyors. I don’t have a photo of anyone who looks like Pentos but if I did, I would put it in that black box to the right. Sometimes the Document Notes will have some ideas for scenes with Pentos. Right now it’s blank.

I try and do Character Sketches for all the main characters and all the characters involved in subplots. For a Space Opera novel, this can create a rather large cast. Sometimes I forget character names and or what they do, so these sketches come in handy for quick reference while writing. I have my cast broken into Good Guys, Bad Guys and Silicants. Sometimes I have a Grays folder, for those characters who are not quite good and not quite bad.

Another trick is to use the Keywords feature of Scrivener to hold the character names. I’ve just started to mess with that feature so I can’t speak about it much at this time.


There is another folder in the Binder that is for storing Images. I usually create the same folders I used for Character Sketches and add a few more folders for Maps, Characters and Starships. Remember, I write the Space Opera stuff, so sometimes I draw pictures of ships and especially maps.

In the Characters folders I sometimes use images from around the net that I find while browsing. Could be an interesting face or an unusual outfit. This is pretty much just an inspiration art folder. I’m not an artist in real life, but sometimes I pretend I am on my own computer. I’m likely to include doodles I’ve done on pencil and paper in these folders too. Just scan them or take digital pictures of the drawings and slot them into the right folder for inspiration when I’m writing.

The one thing I use the heck out of is a map. Specifically a map of my known universe. The map I use for the Star Trilogy has been handed down to me by the Gods as an old, bitmap rendering in Microsoft Paint. I have used a paper copy of that map forever. Last year I finally recreated it using a vector line based program. As far as maps go it is not very impressive. But when you write about multiple planets and empires in space, you better know where your towel is, I mean map. Here is my shinny new map. Good guys in blue and bad guys in red. Undiscovered or unnamed planets are black.

Scrivener also includes a Places folder where you can include templates for locations. This is really handy in Space Opera as I’m often traveling to many different planets and starships during the course of the story.


I’m all about outlining my novels. If I were to pants them, it would take me years to do a single novel. I start with a basic three act structure in a txt file and then throw in plot points. I usually have a main character arc in there to start with and then add in the minor character arcs and subplots as I think of them. Standard story creation stuff.

Before Scrivener I would start an outline in Excel and break it down by chapter. Hitting all the main plot points along the way. Then later on, I would break each chapter down into several scenes. A spreadsheet was useful for this as it let you keep adding or subtracting scenes and chapters as needed.

Scrivener has a built-in outline program and the cool thing about using it over a spreadsheet, aside from the fact that its built into the writing tool, is that you can move your scenes and chapters around as you see fit, much easier than you can in a spreadsheet. In fact you can even view chapters and scenes as note cards and pin them to a cork board and then move them around as necessary.

To be honest, I don’t use it that way at all. I could do without the cork board myself. But the outline is the bee’s knees. To each his or her own. I can see Pantsers really loving the cork board.

Above you see the completed first part of my outline for Starveyors. Since these chapters were written months ago, they are pretty well locked down. So I numbered the scenes sequentially like in a movie script. But further down the outline, where things are more fluid, the scenes are just lettered. Sometimes they are not even in alphabetical order.

When I’m developing the outline I make a point to describe every chapter and scene in the Synopsis area top right of screen. This actually helps you do a decent Synopsis when you are finished. Especially if you make them readable.

I use the Document Notes area in yellow, as a place to jot notes about the scene or chapter so I can remember important bits of plot or character. Every scene has a purpose and sometimes I just write that in the notes area. Hero’s mother dies from wounds sustained by ruthless Sandpeople. Oops, wrong story.

In the General meta data area between the Synopsis and the Notes I just mark scenes as you see in the image. Scene color is blue, First Draft checked and Include in the compile. Nothing unusual there.

I’m going to cut this short here and save the rest for Part Two. This post is already getting a bit long. I blame the screen shots. Anyway, come back for more later.

Part Two

Unity, First Impressions

Unity is the new desktop replacement for Ubuntu Linux. It takes a radical approach to the desktop, mixing elements of Windows, Mac and Linux to form a new interface. I applaud Ubuntu for trying something new and innovating the desktop space. This is exactly what Open Source software is best at.

With great change, comes great confusion and impassioned protests from those of us set in our ways. I am a daily user of Ubuntu. It runs on my secondary PC at work and my HP Mini netbook that I do all of my writing on. I really liked the old interface with Gnome 2. I was comfortable with it and it let me customize my computer for the way I used it. But no matter how much I liked the old ways, I was still open to change if I thought that change was for the better.

In many ways the new Unity desktop feels like a completely different operating system. It tries to introduce several new features at the same time and I think that more than anything is what’s confusing to long time users of Ubuntu like myself. But what we all have to remember is that change is the mark of innovation. If Linux is not innovating, than it is falling behind other OS solutions.

I won’t go into detailed descriptions of all the changes that Unity offers, you can find great videos and blog posts elsewhere. What I will offer over the course of the next few days and weeks is my personal opinion of these new features, as I use the 11.4 release both at work and on the Mini. Especially from the vantage point of a fiction writer.

My first impressions of Unity on my writing netbook are very positive. It looks slick and modern and still feels like Ubuntu. The launcher dock on the left of the screen gets out of your way when you open a program, so that saves desktop space on my ten inch screen. Each program that is active now has its menu on the main menu bar at the top of the screen. This is why Ubuntu moved the close and open buttons to the left a few releases ago. The new approach is very similar to how Mac opens programs. So a Mac user would be right at home. But for Windows users and users of KDE and the old Gnome, this will be confusing and irritating.

Unity was originally intended to be a netbook OS. So using Unity on a netbook should be ideal and it really is. Unfortunately I don’t have a desktop computer that can handle Unity, so I can’t say how it would behave on a bigger screen. But on the tiny netbook, it definitely works, once you get used to the new metaphors.

Next time I’ll go into how I use Unity when I write.

Writing SF on Ubuntu

I’m not sure how many writers create Science Fiction on Linux, but I’ll wager that not to many of us do. Off hand, I only know of Cory Doctorow and myself. If you are a published SF author and create exclusively on Linux, leave a comment on this post.

I use Ubuntu on my HP Mini. My primary application for writing is Libre Office. Here is a screenshot taken from my latest Work In Progress (WIP) – Starforgers.

I do most of my writing early in the morning before work and while on lunch at work in one of the HP lobbies at the Boise site. I can’t get on the HP network with a personal laptop, so I write off line while on lunch break. The silence is golden as far as getting away from the internet.

I’ve been really happy with Ubuntu on the Mini. I never experience hangs or program crashes and everything just works. I don’t mess with the OS and it doesn’t mess with me.

I save my work into a Dropbox folder and when I go online, it gets synced up to the internet. This arrangement allows me to have a local copy and a cloud copy of my latest WIP. You don’t have to be a computer nerd to use Linux anymore and I really think more writers would be happy using it.