The Linux Setup – Scott Merrill, Systems Engineer/Tech Writer

Scott came to my attention when I saw a great interview he did with Linus Torvalds for TechCrunch. I was very excited Scott agreed to share his setup, and as you read it, you’ll see some sharp commentary. Like Scott, I find myself doing less and less customization. Scott attributes it to the work it takes to restore personalizations, but I wonder if it’s because interfaces like Unity and GNOME 3 are getting better and because more and more work takes place in the browser, with both factors diminishing the need to mess with the desktop too much. As you read through, you’ll see a number of interesting points from Scott.

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

    I’m Scott Merrill. I’m a full-time Linux systems engineer focusing on build automation for a large US insurance firm. I’m a Red Hat Certified Engineer, and have been using Linux exclusively since about 1999.

    In my free time, I write for TechCrunch where I cover Linux and free and open source software. I also occasionally post to my personal blog at

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

    At home, I use Ubuntu. I track the latest stable releases pretty closely. I’m using Unity, and on the whole I don’t mind it much.

    At work, I have a desktop running Fedora 16. I’m using GNOME 3, and on the whole I don’t mind it much, either. [With both interfaces,] I’m able to launch my apps with relative ease. I don’t find [either] interface really slowing me down or getting in my way at all.

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

    At home, I rely almost exclusively on Chrome. Occasionally I use GIMP to take and manipulate screenshots. I’ve recently started using Shotwell to organize my photos, but that’s not a task to which I’m very committed. I also recently switched from XChat to irssi for my IRC needs. I have irssi running in a screen session on a rooted Pogoplug. I ssh into the Pogoplug and reattach the screen session as needed. I’ve dabbled with web-based IRC clients but have been mostly unsatisfied with them (Subway may change my opinion on that score, though:

    At work, I rely almost exclusively on a shell prompt. I’ve just recently started using tmux to streamline my shell manipulations, and thus far I’m really enjoying it. I’ve been a casual screen user for some time, but I often find myself launching multiple shell windows so that I can see things side-by-side a little easier. tmux makes that even easier for me. (Work email uses Lotus Notes, for which I used to use a Windows laptop. I’ve recently been allocated a MacBook Air, so I’ll likely soon retire the Fedora desktop; all the POSIX tools I need are on – or available for – the Mac, and it can run Notes to boot.)

    Over the years, I’ve tried to actively minimize the number of personalizations I make to my computers. Every hard disk failure or upgrade or distribution switch brings non-trivial costs in terms of time and effort to restore my personalizations, so I’ve just given up. I use vi(m) exclusively for text editing because it was the common denominator on the distributions I used originally; it didn’t require a special installation. I don’t currently maintain a .vimrc, I just use the default configuration. For most of what I do, it’s more than sufficient. This is also why I’m using Unity on Ubuntu and GNOME 3 on Fedora: it’s the path of least resistance for me, and to be honest, neither interface actively impairs my productivity.

    A side effect of my abandonment of personalization is that I can pretty comfortably use just about anybody’s machine in a pinch to do something productive. Unless, you know, they’re using something crazy like Gentoo. 😉

    (The MacBook, obviously, changes that equation. I’ve installed MacVim, tmux – via Homebrew – and iTerm2. A native OSX environment just doesn’t give me the same functionality as what I’ve come to expect from Linux. It’s close, but sufficiently different as to cause friction).

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

    My personal laptop is a Hewlett Packard 8510w Mobile Workstation.

    My work desktop is(/was) a Lenovo ThinkCentre with 4GB RAM.

  5. What is your ideal Linux setup?

    More and more, I’m of the opinion that my ideal Linux setup would be a ChromeBook. I don’t need local apps for the majority of stuff I do at home. For TechCrunch, I usually take notes in a Google Docs document or (*gasp*) with a pen and paper. I compose all my posts online in WordPress, and rely on that to manage saving my drafts and revisions for me. I could pretty easily use something like in place of GIMP for the rare image manipulation I need to do.

    I manage Linux systems all day long, and have been doing so professionally for quite a few years now. It’s no longer something I’m really keen to do in my free time. I’d be happy to avoid the entirety of an operating system for the stuff I do at home now.

    If I were in the market for new hardware, I’d likely consider an Ultrabook or MacBook Air of some sort. I’ve never really looked into the details, though. I’d have to do some research to ensure that all the pieces function as expected.

  6. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    My laptop is literally the default Ubuntu desktop, with the addition of Chrome to the sidebar.

Interview conducted April 20, 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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