Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Linux Setup - Amy Cavender, Professor/ProfHacker

I found Amy through her ProfHacker work. For those who don’t know, ProHacker is a technical productivity blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Amy’s setup in interesting, in that she’s using a souped-up Chromebook with Ubuntu instead of ChromeOS. That hits a real sweet spot for a lot of people. I know I’m interested in something light and cheap to carry around, but I want more than just a web browser at my disposal. Amy’s ChrUbuntu setup is an interesting option. (ASUS seems to be getting in on the concept but I think it’s about $100 too much for the hardware they’re offering).

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here and follow me on Twitter here.

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    My name is Amy Cavender. I’m a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saint Mary’s College. I’m also interim director of the college’s Center for Academic Innovation, and I blog regularly at ProfHacker.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    There are several reasons. First, I like to tinker. Then there are all the other reasons I listed in a post I wrote for ProfHacker a little over a year ago: it works on older hardware (at least, some distributions do, and there’s quite a variety), it’s highly customizable, and it’s free.

    Finally, it’s the one full-blown operating system that can be installed on a Chromebook. Installing it on a Chromebook results in a very lightweight, inexpensive portable system that works very well for what I need in a portable computer. Linux isn’t the OS I use most of the time, at least not yet (I’m primarily a Mac user), but I find it very useful in a lot of circumstances.

  3. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    I’m running Ubuntu 13.04. I like 13.10 well enough, but it wasn’t particularly stable on my primary Linux machine. I chose Ubuntu both because I’m familiar with it, and because to the best of my knowledge it’s the only distribution available through ChrUbuntu.

  4. What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?

    I’m fond of GNOME Shell (I’m currently using 3.8). I use Alfred in the Mac world, so I’m used to launching applications with just a few keystrokes. I know that’s possible in Unity, too, but I prefer GNOME’s appearance and quick-switching between applications.

  5. What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?

    If I have to pick just one, I’ll have to go with ReText, since I do a lot of my writing these days in plain text/Markdown. I also rely on SpiderOak and Dropbox to sync my files with my other computers and my iPad.

  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    I’m running it on an Acer Chromebook (C710-2833). I’ve upgraded the RAM from the standard 2GB to 6GB (well, usually — sometimes the machine sees the second memory module, sometimes it doesn’t). I’ve also upgraded to a 128GB SSD from the 16GB drive it shipped with.

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

Amy Cavender's desktop

Interview conducted December 5, 2013


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here, follow me on Twitter here, and subscribe to the feed here.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Linux Setup - Matt Dobson, PC Repairman

I found Matt through Lifehacker, where his desktops have often been featured (more of his work can be seen here). Matt’s interview is interesting because of his focus on the visual aesthetics of his desktop. It’s a change from what people usually discuss here and for me it’s particularly enlightening because I tend to forget about the visual flexibility of Linux. Productivity is great, but sometimes you just want your desktop environment to look cool. Matt’s good at connecting to that idea.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here and follow me on Twitter here.

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    I’m Matt Dobson (commonly known as Dobbie), 34 from New Zealand. I work at a local electrical wholesaler as the estimating/all-round-Mr.-PC-Fix-It guy.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    I love the versatility of it, the speed of booting/shutdown, etc. I love the freedom to do whatever the hell I want with my MY computer that I paid for :) I still use Windows/OS X at home, but not for long. I find them both clunky and difficult to use. I get annoyed that I can’t make my computer look or work how I would like it to when I use anything other than Ubuntu or another distro.

    I get bored quickly of Windows or OS X and return to my main PC pretty quickly. I’m not a hardcore Linux guy who can do all these weird and wonderful things — I use what I am comfortable using. My main thing is to make my desktop look good and to listen to some good sounds.

  3. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    On my main PC I switch between elementary OS and Ubuntu (normally standard Ubuntu with GNOME Shell added on after; I find this more stable than GNOME edition). I just installed Ubuntu 13.10 GNOME edition on my laptop and so far it seems pretty solid.

  4. What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?

    I like to switch it up. I love KDE, I love GNOME Shell and I love Pantheon. So, which environment I want to use depends on my mood. Having said that, I prefer GNOME Shell. I just love the way it all flows, though Pantheon has really taken my fancy lately. Every once in a while I catch myself daydreaming about the good old GNOME 2 days, wishing GNOME Shell never arrived. But, you gotta move with progress :D

    Personally, I think Pantheon is heading in the right direction and I am really interested to see what the guys at SolusOS come up with on their upcoming release.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: A few days after this interview, the SolusOS project shut down.

  5. What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?

    Audacious. For me, my PC is where I listen to all my music and I listen to a heck of a lot of music. I don’t tinker much in the terminal unless I am installing/updating or whatever and Audacious is the best sounding, easiest to use, most reliable Linux music player in my opinion. I’m not a big fan of music programs that take all day to scan your music library and eat up resources while keeping tabs on that particular watch folder.

    Audacious is a simple and easy on the PC program to run, plus it seems to be well maintained by the developers.

  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    I run this on a dirty old Acer Aspire M3910, 4GB RAM and a 1GB AMD 5500 GPU and roughly 3TBs of HDD space, all with a lovely 27” LED monitor. All of this is attached to my magnificent Yamaha amplifier and four floor standing speakers. My PC is nothing special but it does the trick.

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    Share my desktop? Bugger off, it’s all mine! Kidding, here is my latest. This is elementary OS, Plank , Covergloobus, Conky, and this wallpaper.

Matt Dobson's desktop

Interview conducted October 22, 2013


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here, follow me on Twitter here, and subscribe to the feed here.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Linux Setup - Meg Ford, GNOME Developer

Meg’s setup reminds me a lot of Dave Neary’s: simple and taking advantage of stock tools, rather than reinventing the desktop experience. Of course, given Meg’s GNOME work, she actually gets to reinvent the desktop experience professionally, so it’s probably a less compelling need for her when she’s not developing. Also, Meg mentions Documents in her interview. I didn’t realize it was the default GNOME document manager, which I don’t usually use, but which seems to be a great dashboard which integrates local documents with cloud-hosted ones. It’s something I might explore down the line. It’s kind of funny how, like many Linux users, I have all of this interesting software installed and at my fingertips, yet I haven’t fully explored what’s available to me. It’s a nice problem to have.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here and follow me on Twitter here.

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    I am a member of the GNOME foundation and an MS in Computer Science student. I contribute to GNOME’s Documents application, co-organize monthly Linux user group meetups and GNOME hackfests in Chicago, and help out with the Chicago Python Workshop. I’m working as a web developer while I complete my degree.

  2. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    I’m running Fedora 18. I use the GNOME desktop environment.

  3. What software do you depend upon with this distribution?

    I run the current version of Documents from git master for managing and editing my Google and local docs and for developing and testing the software itself.

    I use Pidgin for communicating on IRC, Tomboy for note taking, and GIMP and Inkscape for svg and picture editing.

    I usually use Firefox (with HTTPS Everywhere, Ghostery, AdBlock, and GNOME 3 extensions) for browsing the web, and Google Chrome when I need smooth integration with Google services.

    When I program for GNOME I use gedit and the terminal. For web development I use Bluefish. In school my primary language is Java, so I use Eclipse and JGrasp. I just started learning C this semester, and I’m going to try using Emacs. There’s a steep learning curve with Emacs, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to invest the time to learn it.

  4. What kind of hardware do you run it on?

    I have a Thinkpad T61.

  5. What is your ideal Linux setup?

    I think I work on GNOME in order to help create the “ideal” Linux. It’s really exciting to me to try out new features as they are built, and contribute to the vision and development happening in our community.

  6. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

Meg Ford's desktop

Interview conducted January 25, 2013


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

You can follow us on Google+ here and subscribe to our feed here.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Linux Setup - Mary Gardiner, Ada Initiative

Mary does a great job going through her workflow. Her feelings on not having the time and/or energy for upgrades really resonated with me, though. Linux is at an interesting point in time. Individual releases work fantastically, but moving between releases can still sometimes be tricky. There seems to be a real market for a rolling release that’s tightly managed, so breakage is minimized yet software is always relatively up-to-date. Rick Spencer is thinking about what something like this might look like for Ubuntu. A lot of Linux users, across distros, would probably be very excited about a rolling release with training wheels.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

You can follow us on Google+ here.

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    I am Mary Gardiner of the Ada Initiative. We’re a feminist non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture. I co-founded the Ada Initiative, and my title is Director of Operations and Research. Much as roles in a small startup are blurry they are for us too: my work includes everything from policy work, public speaking, training, business administration, bookkeeping, systems administration and JavaScript programming.

    Other things I do include caring for my young child; blogging; the odd bit of swimming, cycling and yoga; and very occasional scuba diving. I am in the very last stages of a PhD in computational linguistics: in the next month or so I need to do the final revisions of my thesis in line with my examiners’ comments and then I will graduate some time this year.

  2. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    I run Ubuntu on my laptop. To date I’ve always run the latest stable release, and occasionally the upcoming release when it’s in beta, but my time for upgrading software is diminishing and I’m considering switching to using only LTS releases, even on my laptop.

    I am curious about how Fedora is doing these days, but realistically switching distributions is more work than upgrading Ubuntu so I am likely to stick with the path of least resistance.

  3. What software do you depend upon with this distribution?

    I run GNOME Shell rather than Unity after having tried them both quite briefly. It works for me, although I’ve also enjoyed using tiled window managers a lot, so I am hoping the shellshape GNOME Shell extension matures further and allows me to use a simple tiled manager.

    I use Firefox for web browsing and increasingly for webapps also (I use Google Apps for work). I use Pidgin for IRC and IM, mostly for the feature that lets me set different statuses in different accounts, so that I am not equally available to everyone I know all at the same time. I’ve used irssi for IRC in the past and may again at some point. I use mutt for mail, together with Postfix (in satellite mode) and offlineimap.

    When I code, it’s almost always in Python, so Python and many Python libraries are installed on my machines.

    For my PhD thesis I also had LaTeX installed, 2E originally and later TeXLive, so that I could use xelatex. I wrote a whole series of blog entries on useful LaTeX packages for academic writing. For shorter pieces of writing I use LibreOffice, when I need control over look and feel, and Google Docs otherwise. I edit plain text and code in Vim.

    zsh, ssh, rsync and rdiff-backup play important supporting roles generally.

    On my servers my key software is Postfix for mail, BIND9 for DNS, nginx for HTTP(S) and Dovecot for IMAP, together with WordPress for most of my websites.

  4. What kind of hardware do you run it on?

    My laptop is a Dell Vostro 3300 that I purchased in 2010. When I was finishing my PhD thesis in 2012 I bought a 24” Philips monitor to use with it. Before that I was reliant on the laptop’s screen. Now when at my desk I use the external monitor, a Microsoft Natural keyboard and a USB optical mouse of whatever brand happened to be selling the last time my mouse broke.

    My servers are a Linode VM and a Shuttle box that AusPCMarket built for me. Building my own boxen comes from the same non-existent energy budget that trying new Linux distributions comes from.

  5. What is your ideal Linux setup?

    More or less what I have, I guess; I am not very ambitious. There’s probably no such thing as too many screen inches or too much RAM though.

  6. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    It’s probably time to search Flickr for a more cheerful background.

Mary Gardiner's desktop

Interview conducted January 21, 2013


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

You can follow us on Google+ here and subscribe to our feed here.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

It’s Time for Canonical to Stop Protecting Unity

GNOME vs Unity screenshots

I recently installed Ubuntu 12.04 on my T43, just to take it for a test spin, and because I had heard a lot of really nice things about the release. I’m still totally in love with OpenSUSE 12.1, which is my day-to-day home OS, but the vast Ubuntu repositories are always a selling point for me. I was curious if Unity was workable for me down the line.

The T43 is a great machine but its lack of a super/Windows key is always a bit of a challenge since more and more desktop environments map cool functionality to that key. With Unity, I had a tough time mapping a new shortcut to the Dash. However, I was eventually able to remap a shortcut to the launcher, because I try and avoid using the mouse as much as possible.

I’m still shocked by how complicated Unity is. Like how is the Unity plugin not its own application? And how is it not installed by default? Is this poor usability or is Canonical trying to dissuade users from making changes? I think it’s the latter given the warning from the CompizConfig Settings Manager, but all that warning does is make me wonder why making changes is so potentially dangerous.

Once I got the Unity shortcuts working, I felt like I was using GNOME 3, so I decided to install it, just to see how different it is in Ubuntu. GNOME 3 was also shockingly challenging to make function without a super key. But what I had working in my favor was understanding the GNOME 3 concept, and knowing what the different parts were called. I was eventually able to remap the super key, which calls up the search/application launching area, using dconf and changing the keybindings in org > gnome > desktop > wm > keybindings.

In general, the experience made me realize what a huge fan of GNOME 3 I’ve become. It works effortlessly for me. I use it fairly stock and don’t feel the need to make many changes, although I did install the shutdown button extension. Once I had the super button remapped, it felt just like home. I don’t think of it as a desktop environment so much as I think of it as the launcher I’ve always wanted.

Unity is fine to work with, but it still feels very similar to GNOME 3. I’m not sure why Canonical has spent so much time and effort making an environment that feels subtlely different from an existing one, but I appreciate that they seem to have resolved a lot of the technical issues I saw in 11.10. The lenses are an interesting concept, but I prefer to browse content through a web browser, rather than an application launcher.

Unity has the new HUD feature, allowing users to access application menus via typing. It’s an interesting concept, but because there’s no formal application nomenclature, users need to remember things like which programs Close to shut down versus which ones Quit. As much as I try to avoid the mouse, it’s usually pretty quick to just user the X button to close out of applications.

I was thinking a lot about the point of Unity when I had some interesting usability experiences over the past few weeks.

The first was using my friend’s MacBook to test some apps for work. I didn’t get the Finder area and had trouble identifying some programs along the dock. I made a comment along the lines of “This isn’t very intuitive, is it?” and my friend immediately disagreed and said he finds it effortless to work with.

Just a few days later, Linus Torvalds let loose with his now infamous rant against GNOME 3, which made me immediately realize that GNOME 3 is not working for everyone.

It seems painfully obvious to write this, but it bears repeating: not everyone uses computers in the same way. Any time anyone proposes there’s a magical, singular desktop experience that should work for everyone, we should all brace ourselves for failure.

And that’s really where I take exception to Unity. It’s not that it’s inherently bad — it’s that Canonical pushes it so hard on its users. They make it tough to customize Unity. They eliminate desktop competition. If a desktop environment isn’t customizable, there should be a variety of desktop environment options for users. In other words, if users can’t easily tweak an environment, it should be easy for them to choose a different one.

I can see how someone trying to tweak GNOME 3 might be frustrated by it. And for people who like using menus, it must be especially frustrating. But as someone who hates to touch the mouse, the GNOME 3 experience is fantastic. I feel no need to customize it because I only interact with it for the brief moment it takes to type the name of the program I need. Then, it disappears.

Windows 7 is actually shockingly receptive to this kind of workflow, with an amazing file search algorithm that seems to rate frequently used files above others. In that workflow, I hit the super key, type a file name, and Windows 7 shows me what matches. Right now a lot of my files begin with something like spring12, but Windows puts the ones I work with the most at the top of the list, making it easy to select and open, all from the Start menu. It’s a real time-saver, and is one of the few things I do in Windows that I wish I could do in GNOME 3 (GNOME 3 remembers recently-used files, but the search is not as comprehensive as Windows.’ Unity has a very nice search, though). Alas, it seems like this Windows 7 infatuation has an expiration date.

It’s important for distros to not only support different desktop environments, but also to curate them. Although OpenSUSE is known as a KDE-centric distribution, its GNOME implementation is fantastic. People seem to love Voyager, which is actually based on Xubuntu. Sabayon supports a number of desktop environments, too. That’s the way Linux distributions used to behave, before the emphasis on getting everything to fit on a single CD. It’s a tradition distributions should return to, making it very easy for users to choose and experiment with different environments.

GNOME 3 runs just fine on Ubuntu 12.04, but it’s a stock implementation. It’s great that Canonical believes in Unity, but it would also be nice if they threw some resources behind other desktop environments, too. Improving other desktops can only help improve Unity. Choice continues to be a core value in the Linux world. Canonical doesn’t inhibit choice with Ubuntu, but they could probably do more to promote it. As leaders within the Linux community (whether Canonical or the community likes it or not), promoting choice, even at the perceived expense of Unity, is very important.

It’s fine that Canonical has a vision for Unity that doesn’t allow easy user customization. But in the absence of customization, they should at least curate other environments so users have choice. The community-driven variants are great, but they’re not the same as a Canonical-supported environment.

If Canonical really believes in Unity, they shouldn’t be scared to put it up against KDE and GNOME and let their users pick which they prefer. Competition will only make Unity stronger, and in the end, that’s what everyone wants.