The Linux Setup – Jon “maddog” Hall, Linux International

Jon “maddog” Hall is a bit of a legend in the Linux community, so it’s truly an honor to have his participation here. Jon makes a number of interesting (and, of course, provactive points). For instance, he chooses his distribution based upon his client, rather than choosing what he personally prefers. And he gravitates toward software that offers the most functionality, rather than the easiest, which is an interesting counterpoint to the many in the “choose the simplest tool for the job” camp.

Jon’s passion comes through in his answers and it’s a real treat to get the perspective of someone who’s pretty much been using Linux since the beginning.

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

    Those are good questions. I am Jon “maddog” Hall, and for the past seventeen years I have been the Executive Director of Linux International. That fact and 350 USD will get you a cup of coffee at most Starbucks…..

    I have also been in the computer industry since 1969 and worked on all sorts of computers including mainframes that had less than one-quarter megabyte of core memory and micros that had less than 1K bytes of semi-conductor memory. I have stored data on paper tape at the rate of 10 bytes per linear inch, and actually programmed computers for a living that could not store their own programs in memory…they were controlled by wiring a plug board. Yes, this makes me old….

    Along the way I have been a programmer, systems administrator, college educator, product manager, technical marketing manager, author and trouble-maker.

    Since 1977 I have been exclusively Unix or Unix-based systems, and when I met Linus Torvalds in 1994 I started promoting Linux more or less full time, and since 1999 I have been going around the world promoting Free and Open Source Software, helping companies and governments either make or save money with FOSS.

    I also work with a company called Futura Networks who produces an event world-wide called Campus Party ( and I am working on a project called Project Cauã ( that has the potential of creating millions of high-tech jobs around the world.

    Finally, I do various consulting jobs for various companies.

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

    Whatever Linux distributions my customer wants me to run.

    Recently I did a job for Red Hat Software. While doing that job I ran Fedora, since most of the engineers at Red Hat run Fedora on their desktops and notebooks.

    If I was going to do a job for Canonical, I would probably run Ubuntu.

    For the past 17 years people have been asking me what I run on my notebook, and I tell them it does not make any difference what *I* run.

    What they should be running is the best distribution for them, not me.

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

    Again, this question is not going to have a satisfying answer for you….

    I use software more by “criteria” than “name”.

    First of all, I use whatever software my customer needs me to use.

    Next, I do not use software just because it is “easier to use”, I tend to use software that has the greatest capabilities. I would rather spend more time learning software that has the greatest capabilities rather than be halfway through learning a new piece of software and find that it has features lacking that I really need.

    Next, I look for software with a vibrant user and developer community. This is mostly to protect my customers rather than me.

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

    O.K. you asked about my main notebook…..

    It is a Lenovo Thinkpad W510 with an Intel I7 chipset, 16GB of main memory, USB 3.0, 802.11n built in and a 17″ LED backlit screen. It has one TB of disk space, broken out into two 500GB disks.

    I named it “Smaug” after the fire-breathing dragon of Tolkien’s Hobbit, since once it really starts up the hot-air vent sears your skin off and the fans (although quiet) blow air like there is no tomorrow.

    Under light editing and/or web browsing, “Smaug sleeps”.

    I bought it because I can do simulations of multiple virtual machines without slowing down the processor too much. This is part of Project Cauã, and I knew that I would be doing these simulations sooner or later on my notebook as a demonstration.

    It was also the first notebook I could find that had USB 3.0 and an LED backlit screen, both of which I felt were necessary for multimedia work, which I do from time to time.

    And I had been using ThinkPads for some time, enjoyed their ruggedness and the fact that most things (including the built-in webcam and fingerprint scanner) worked “out of the box.”

    I tend to buy “top of the line”, but keep that for a number of years, upgrading the disk as they increase in capacity. I buy a warranty on the hardware that has come in useful from time to time…things do wear out. Lenovo’s service has been spectacular.

  5. What is your ideal Linux setup?

    I do not do any gaming….I never got into it.

    My favorite game was “Adventure” (“you are now in a maze of twisty-turny passages” and “zyzzy” for those of you who remember) played on a PDP-8 that had all of 4K 12-bit words of memory. That was in 1969.

    I do admit to playing a rousing game of solitaire when I am really tired at night….

    I do some multimedia work, and a few years ago set up a “multimedia desk-side computer” that cost me about four thousand dollars. Four years later you could get that same functionality for less than one thousand dollars.

    In my basement I have about one-half million dollars of equipment that it would now cost me about three hundred dollars to dispose of….

    At the age of sixty-one I have failing ears, failing eyesight and failing reflexes, so to invest in vastly expensive hardware for anything is probably not going to happen. A good sound card, and reasonable 3D capability is probably all I need for most of my work, and these are reasonable in price.

    This is not 1969, when a single transistor often cost $1.50, and that was when $1.50 would get you into a movie AND buy popcorn!

    On the other hand my software is constantly changing….

  6. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?


    First of all, I have a lot of folders on my desktop that indicate various projects that I am doing for various companies. The names of the folders are illustrative the work I am doing for them and their privacy could be violated. When I do presentations I am careful not to show my main desktop.

    Secondly, it would be boring. I do not spend much time “tailoring” my desktop, since I keep changing distributions.

    I have no “favorite software” other than vim, and that is a love gained over more than a quarter century of “ed” to “ex” to “vi” to “vim”. I was using a “dot-editor” even before there were “line editors”, much less “full-screen” editors.

    Before “ed” it was punched cards and paper tape.

Interview conducted March 11, 2012

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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