The Linux Setup – Chris Forster, Academic

I was very excited when Chris Forster agreed to participate, because the academic perspective, especially the humanities perspective, isn’t always very visible within the Linux community. Chris does more than get academic work done, though. He does it with a fairly hardcore setup that might make some computer science faculty gulp in fear and wonder.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

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

    I just defended my doctoral dissertation in the English Department at the University of Virginia on the literature of the early twentieth century and obscenity (if you’re thinking of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’ Lover, you’re in the right ballpark).

    Like most graduate students (particularly in the humanities), I earned money chiefly by teaching—often first-year composition. I’ll be staying at UVA for one more year as a postdoctoral teaching fellow, teaching courses on twentieth-century literature. (After that, I’m looking for work; so if you need a scholar of modernism let me know.)

    I sometimes put some writing at my blog and I’m on twitter.

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

    I spend too much time tinkering around with distributions. There are machines somewhere in my house running SliTaz, Slackware, and CrunchBang (which runs great on the eee, though I use that machine less frequently since buying a new laptop battery). Right now my primary desktop computer (the main, “family” computer) is running Ubuntu 11.04. I know I’m in a minority, but I quite like the Unity interface—or, I like it theory. In practice it is still a little buggy, but I’m trying to give it a fair chance.

    On my laptop, I just started running Arch Linux (with XMonad as my window manager) a couple of weeks ago. It is definitely a learning experience, but I am really loving it. The rolling release schedule is attractive, package management is great, and I’m learning more about my system and how to best configure it.

    I also have a home server which I use to store files and serve media. It runs Amahi on top of Fedora 12.

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

    Above all, I’ve come to rely on emacs. I regularly use flyspell and AuCTeX for writing, and yasnippet for editing html. I also use org-mode pretty extensively. Org-Mode is, I think, the killer app for emacs. I started gradually using it to organize notes; soon I was using tags and other things. I am now keeping all my notes for reading, writing, and teaching, as well as other to-do lists, in .org files. I like the idea that emacs is old, time-tested software. As Kieran Healy writes, emacs will “be there when the icecaps melt and the cities drown, when humanity destroys itself in fire and zombies, when the roaches finally achieve sentience, take over, and begin using computers themselves – at which point its various Ctrl-Meta key-chords will seem not merely satisfyingly ergonomic for the typical arthropod, but also direct evidence for the universe’s Intelligent Design by some six-legged, multi-jointed God.”

    Org-mode is made even more useful by keeping everything sync’d with Dropbox. I know there are other syncing options (and emerging security concerns); but Dropbox is just so easy right now. It works great in Arch (where I don’t even have nautilus installed).

    Most of my dissertation and most of the papers I wrote as a graduate student were written before my infatuation with plaintext, in OpenOffice (or, more recently, LibreOffice). I allow students to hand papers in electronically; most students send various Word formats as email attachments. Open/LibreOffice has been able to handle them all without any issues.

    Academics, or anyone responsible for organizing a large number of bibliographic citations, should be using Zotero. Zotero keeps me using Firefox when I might otherwise have fully switched to Chrome. Given my emacs-orientation, I’ve also played with Conkeror which is nice.

    I know many people treat conky as though it were just geeky eye-candy, but I find it invaluable. Particularly given my tendency to leave too many tabs open in Chrome, it is helpful to keep an eye on how much memory I’m using.

    I tinker a bit with some programming: Python and the Natural Language Toolkit and Processing. (There is processing minor mode for emacs, but it hasn’t been working for me lately…).

    For media I used to swear by Amarok (1.4); it managed podcasts beautifully, recognized my iPod without hassle, and was really just amazing. I’ve since switched from an iPod to a Sansa player which is not nearly so attractive, but automounts as a mass storage device with no fuss—so iPod support is less important. With the new Ubuntu I’m trying Banshee which is okay; but it feels too sluggish to really fall in love with it. On the laptop I’m using mpd with Sonata as the front end. So far so good (it does handle radio streams quite nicely). To be honest, the Amazon Cloud Player is good and seems stable enough that it may end up being my primary music player. I use bashpodder now for grabbing podcasts (or Chess Griffin’s—whose Linux podcasts are just wonderful—modification, mashpodder).

    For photo management I’m trying Shotwell which is an improvement over F-Spot; but I have yet to find a photomanager which reall impresses me.

    (And you folks know about Handbrake, right?)

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

    The desktop is a pretty cheap (~$300) box I built: an AMD Athlon dual-core processor and 2GB RAM, running on an ASUS motherboard. It has an nVidia video card with the MCP61 Chipset (or so lspci informs me). With the nVidia proprietary drivers I can run a dual monitor setup without too much hassle—and dual monitors is something I’ve come to really appreciate (two LCDs picked up from a University equipment auction).

    The laptop is a Dell Latitude D510 which I purchased used a few years ago. It is old enough that neither wireless nor video drivers give me any trouble.

    The Amahi server is an old Compaq Presario (2.8 Ghz Pentium 4) running headless in my laundry room.

  5. What is your ideal Linux setup?

    I would love to have $500 to throw at a linux-based HTPC, running XMBC. That would be great fun.

    I frequently have Mac laptop envy. I’ve never seen any non-Mac laptop which matches Mac laptops for sheer attractiveness. I would happily settle for an X series Lenovo ThinkPad, though.

    I would also like an HD webcam and a really nice mic.

    Emacs and AUCTeX would really hum if I had the really gorgeous fonts which come pre-installed on Macs these days too.

    And, in an ideal setup, all this would be tied together via a home server with a little more storage and a little more power than mine has (and a faster connection than DSL). I’d also love a lot more knowledge, so that when I port forward connections from my router to my home server I don’t feel like I’m taking my life in my hands.

  6. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    Here is the desktop, where I’m writing this very response:

    Chris Forster's desktop

    And here are a couple of the XMonad laptop. Clean (that is Velasquez’s Las Meninas as wallpaper—from Wikimedia Commons):

    Chris Forster's desktop

    Working with PDFs in Evince and writing in emacs:
    Chris Forster's laptop with emacs

    htop, sonata, and alsamixer (which I’m using to control volume because I haven’t got media keys working… yet):

    Chris Forster's laptop again

Interview conducted June 21, 2011

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.

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