Handlers speculative: how to get a random word notifier in GNOME 3

I’ve been using my “fan merinos” random word generating script for a long time, and increasingly regularly as I take part in a few forums with transient pseudonymity and it’s a useful way to quickly get a pseudonym:

$ rw 1

Sure. Pseudonym activate. Yours, “Mortally”.

The result has been though that I increasingly return to my desktop to find that I’ve opened about 15 terminals and run rw in each and abandoned them.

How useful it would be to have a GNOME notification generated via a keyboard shortcut! Eg I could press Ctrl+Alt+R and get:

A GNOME notification reading: convalescence identities teases handlers speculative

Putting all this together takes a bit of work. First, the shell script to create the notification:


NUM_WORDS=5 # fits nicely in a notification for me

notify-send "$(cat "$WORDS" | grep -v "'" | grep -v "[A-Z]" | shuf -n $NUM_WORDS | xargs echo)" -a "Random words"

Save to, eg ~/bin/rw-notify.sh, and then make it executable: chmod 700 ~/bin/rw-notify.sh

If you run the command from a terminal you then get the notification.

But for some reason I haven’t worked out, GNOME’s keyboard shortcuts won’t run a shell script. If you try and add a shortcut that runs this command, it will simply do nothing.

So, next create another file: ~/.local/share/applications/rw-notify.desktop:

[Desktop Entry]
Name=Random Words Notify
Exec=[YOUR HOME DIR]/bin/rw-notify.sh

Replacing [YOUR HOME DIR] with the location of your home dir, eg:


This will let you activate an application called “Random Words Notify” from the GNOME launcher.

Last step, binding it to a key.

First, you need to have /usr/bin/exo-open available on your system (for some context, see GNOME bug 343896). On Debian and Ubuntu, you’ll need to install exo-utils and on Fedora exo.

You will also need to make the desktop file itself executable: chmod 700 ~/.local/share/applications/rw-notify.desktop

Now, finally open the keyboard shortcuts editor (open the Activities view and start typing “Keyboard”). Scroll to the bottom and press the + to add a new custom shortcut:

Screenshot of the GNOME keyboard shortcut dialog

Then press “Set shortcut” followed by the keys you want (in my case, Ctrl+Alt+R), and fill in a name and, as the command, the full path of the rw-notify.desktop file, eg /home/mary/.local/share/applications/rw-notify.desktop:

Screenshot of the GNOME Add Custom Shortcut dialog

Press “Add” and now Ctrl+Alt+R will bring up 5 random words in a notification for you:

A GNOME notification reading: convalescence identities teases handlers speculative

All shell scripts and commands in this post (enclosed in the <code> HTML tags) are in the public domain.

fan merinos; or how to have a little fun searching logs

At an engineering training with Greg Sabo in my first week at Stripe, he showed a cute trick: using a shell command to generate two random words when testing.

For example, every time I reconfigure my mail server, I send a distressing number of emails in this style:

echo "Testing" | mail -s "Mary Test 1" mary
echo "Testing" | mail -s "Mary Test 2" mary
echo "Testing" | mail -s "Mary Test 3" mary

(I usually lose count around Test 4, for the record.)

Likewise, in testing the Stripe create charges API function, one might run this from the documentation:

curl https://api.stripe.com/v1/charges \
-u sk_test_BQokikJOvBiI2HlWgH4olfQ2: \
-d amount=400 \
-d currency=usd \
-d source=tok_189fCj2eZvKYlo2CjCzCPbk5 \
-d description="Charge for test@example.com"

Wouldn’t those be both more fun and somewhat easier to find in mailboxes, logs and dashboards as, say, Mary test fan merinos and Charge for cellular ascendents respectively? It would be! Thanks Greg!

Implementation-wise, on very recent Ubuntu, the trick is to add something to your bash profile along the times of:

rw () {
cat /usr/share/dict/words | grep -v "'" | grep -v "[A-Z]" | shuf -n 2 | xargs echo

Background: shuf is a command that behaves like head and tail, only it returns a selected number random lines. I’m filtering out single quotes (grep -v "'") in its input so as to not unduly annoy xargs, and filtering capital letters (grep -v "[A-Z]") as a proxy for filtering out proper names.

From there:
$ rw
newscaster mucky
$ echo Mary test $(rw)
Mary test equitable rough

For systems without shuf installed, there’s a lot of potential solutions to shuffling a text file at Stack Overflow, this answer has a great roundup.

As a note of caution, you don’t want to run rw live in front of other people or send them the output unchecked; a random selection of 2 English words has some reasonable chance of being disgusting, offensive, strange, inappropriate, etc. Generate some memorable phrases privately in advance!

Slightly related: xkcd: Password strength.

Change the number of words

Added 28 Sep 2016

A slightly improved version of rw that allows a variable number of words to be returned, defaulting to 2:

rw () {
  if [ -z "$NUM" ]
  cat /usr/share/dict/words | grep -v "'" | grep -v "[A-Z]" | shuf -n $NUM | xargs echo

$ rw
reverberations drumming
$ rw 1
$ rw 7
protections proving unfortunately blubbered uninstallers pitchmen locality