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Introducing appmodmap: make the Command key work again (or, making Mac refugees into Talos owners)


At least in terms of sheer numbers, Power Macintoshes are still the most common Power ISA-based computers, and those of us who still used Power Macs until lately (while my trusty 13-year-old Quad G5 may no longer be my daily driver, it is still used, and it's still under my desk) may well be the Talos II's most natural audience: we gravitate to non-x86 architectures, we like PowerPC in particular, and many Power Macs nowadays run Linux too. Yes, of course there are other audiences for the T2 and it's the truly open libre nature of the architecture that's its strongest general selling point, but those folks attracted by "the next Power Mac" are going to come from the Apple world and it would be nice to help them feel more at home. Yes, the T2 has a unique advantage in that Mac OS X can be run under QEMU with KVM acceleration. But even virtualization has a speed penalty and doesn't always work, and native apps will be more current.

The screenshot at right shows GNOME OSC overlaid with my own tweaked GNOME shell theme, unmistakably still GNOME but evocative enough of early Mac OS X to make me feel at home. Having used Macs in some way or another since 1987, and still using a MacBook Air as my travel laptop (at least until 10.15 makes it impossible to run 32-bit apps, which is where I'll be getting off the fruit bus, thank you), the look isn't jarring switching back and forth and my friend Jon thought I was still on the G5 after a cursory glance at the screen.

However, the other deeply wired part of Mac users is the Command key. My muscle memory is incredibly ingrained with Command key combinations after all these years. I always feel a little hobbled on a regular PC keyboard, and since my KVM is shared between the Quad G5, the Talos II, an SGI Fuel and a Mirrored Drive Doors Power Mac G4 and I use an old-school white Mac keyboard for all of them, having to internally codeswitch back and forth from Ctrl-Q to Cmd-Q may be a first world problem but sure gets obnoxious after awhile. The tips in this article are by no means specific to the Talos systems, but speaking from my own experience I suggest they might make things a bit less alien for a Mac user in transition.

Naturally, by default most things use Control key combinations. Some users will just switch Control and Command but I find this a rather blunt solution that works for some apps but not others. GNOME's system software is somewhat more accommodating to Command key users than KDE, but at the application level rather few packages, GNOME, KDE or otherwise, will let you change their built-in keymappings. Even of those that do, it doesn't always work, or they don't allow the use of the "Super" (their alias) key except in certain specific situations. Fortunately GNOME Terminal does allow this, so I manually remapped my usual keystrokes to the standard Mac combinations. On the browser side, if you go into about:config in Firefox and set ui.key.accelKey to 91 (and possibly restart the browser and/or reset your profile), it will generally work there also mostly as you expect and menus will show the equivalent combinations with the "Win" key instead. This isn't a perfect solution since sometimes the keybindings don't stick in odd places, or some sites will sniff Linux from your user agent string and enforce Control key combinations (Blogger, ahem), but it largely works out of the box.

Unfortunately such applications are the exception and not the rule. Changing GNOME's keyboard settings to map Close Window to Super-Q (Command-Q) will at least make most other apps close in a Mac-like fashion but there isn't much otherwise for any of the other typical functions.

The usual advice people suggest is something like AutoKey. In fact, I did use AutoKey myself for awhile and I can't complain about the functionality it offers, but I found it rather fragile and prone to crashes during use and after a couple system updates it then stopped working completely. More to the point, it was labourious drudgery to manually reconstruct all the Command key combinations for the apps that needed them, and I never ended up finishing that work before it finally crapped out.

Really, all we need is just a way to dynamically determine which app is up and then transparently swap keys around as required based on it. As usual, if you want something done you do it yourself. The result is appmodmap.

appmodmap is a small daemon that watches what the topmost X11 window is and dispatches scripts to change system settings as required. I wrote it for the Talos and I haven't tested it on anything but Fedora, but it strictly uses documented calls and thus should work on anything with X11 and POSIX. It doesn't need elevated privileges and can simply run as you. As compiled out of the box (see the README), it uses setxkbmap and gsettings to alias the Control key to the Command key for the apps on my machine that need it and still provide things such as Super-Tab to switch applications regardless of whatever app is frontmost. When the remapping isn't required for an application, appmodmap will quietly switch everything back to the default, and thus most things "just work." Note that in this scheme already existing Super-key combinations may get temporarily waxed while Control-key aliasing is still in effect, so I had to change a few more shortcuts I need in GNOME's keyboard settings for things like taking screenshots (I remapped them to Alt/Option instead).

You can also use appmodmap as a general way to change any system setting dynamically based on the window class (just write the necessary primitives), but this was what I wrote it for originally, and I still include it as a useful demonstration. Best of all, rather than doing lots of hand work in the AutoKey interface, adding more applications to the daemon just means adding the window class hint name with the desired bitmask, then quickly rebuilding the daemon and restarting it.

Overall, speaking as a long-time Mac user, just a few tweaks made my T2 feel much more like I was used to and thus a lot more productive than having to untrain my fingers. If your primary interest is the Talos' strong commitment to freedom, you'll find a way to use it no matter what contortions the interface makes you do, but if you're a Power Mac user who's a little scared of Linux but yet needs more grunt than your trusty G-series Mac can muster, here's one less excuse for not moving on from the company that left you high and dry.

IBM's POWER9 retrospective is a little one-sided


I'm not going to fault IBM taking a victory lap with the POWER9 in their one-year anniversary retrospective. It's a kick-ass processor; that's why I'm typing this on one. I'm not even going to fault them for biasing it towards their own server products, because that's what IBM sells and they're a business and they want to sell their own stuff. And IBM maintaining financial health gives them the R&D capacity to make the POWER10 even more awesome, so bring on the salesdroids.

But while Google got a shout-out with their bespoke POWER9 Zaius server platform, now in production, IBM seems to have forgotten that Power ISA is making a triumphant return to the desktop in a form that's gotten at least as much press as Zaius/Barreleye, probably sold more units, and is actually in the hands of real end users who are using it as their real computers right now. Hmm, I wonder what computer that could be?

Let's consider the historical perspective: the last major Power desktop system that didn't come from IBM was of course the Power Mac G5 Quad, which was replaced by the Mac Pro in 2006. (The last Power workstations from IBM were the IntelliStation POWER 185 and 285. This pair of machines outlasted the Quad G5 until 2009 but they preferentially ran AIX, and weren't available in large numbers.) While PowerPC chips owned the game console market for a period of time (Wii/Wii U, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360), Apple's Intel transition meant the only remaining third-party PowerPC desktops were the AmigaOne machines. I like Amigas fine, but these systems so far have been rather underpowered due to their use of embedded designs and fairly expensive due to the small market, boutique production runs and distinctly poor economies of scale. Frankly, depending on how big a detractor you are, PowerPC hadn't been competitive against x86 on the desktop since the early G4 days, and no one other than IBM had shipped a top-tier Power ISA desktop in over 12 years.

Now we have not only a Power ISA CPU that is performance-competitive with current x86_64 offerings, but an entire third-party libre workstation built around them that you can order and get shipped to your house right now. The cost of a full Talos II only seems steep until you consider how much a Xeon box in the same ballpark will run you, and the delta seems much more reasonable then. If Blackbird is successful at establishing a "low end" POWER9 machine with a more amenable price, we could see Power ISA start to become a major desktop player once again, especially as the software support situation continues to improve by leaps and bounds and people realize what a liability blackboxes like Intel Management Engine are. Even if you're not in the market for a T2 right now, you'll be more likely to have a real choice in workstations when you do. And that's good news for everybody.

Seems like IBM could have mentioned that.

Void Linux goes POWER9


A nice commit landed in Void Linux: 64-bit Power ISA support including big and little endian. Although you'll have to build it yourself and it looks like more work is needed for other packages, eventually the resulting binaries should boot on any Talos II system and the musl support is welcome for those who prefer to avoid issues with non-64-bit long double.

Related is work to get old-school 32-bit PowerPC working, so your beloved Power Mac can play too.