I bumped into Nathan via his Huffington Post piece about leaving OS X for Linux. Here he says some really nice things about the importance of our electronic workspaces reflecting our personal values. I’ve been thinking about that lately as I think about the strength of desktop Linux coming from its ability to be customized. Even within relatively locked-down desktop environments, Linux still has a tremendous ability to bend to the will of the user. There’s really nothing else like it and it’s important not just for helping us accomplish our goals, but also for helping us to understand the tools we need to work effectively. At its best, Linux teaches us how to create our own personal electronic work environments, where most operating systems force users to live within someone else’s idea of how we should work. Nathan reminds us that in so many ways, our desktops are personal statements.
- Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Nathan Schneider, a writer and editor. I write for publications like Harper’s and The Nation and The Chronicle of Higher Education and co-edit an online literary journal on religion and a site for daily news and analysis on resistance movements (I also manage the back-end for both). I’ve written two books, one on debates about the existence of God and one on Occupy Wall Street.
- Why do you use Linux?
Like many people today, I spend huge portions of my waking life working at a computer. It’s where I spend a lot of my creative life. It seems important to me to do my work in an environment that, as much as possible, reflects the values I try to write with — openness, collaboration, community, experimentation.
- What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?
I was a lifelong Mac user until recently, when it came to feel to me like Apple was less interested in fostering creativity with its software than in training obedient consumers. Since last fall, I’ve been using the latest versions of Ubuntu. I’ve thought about switching to a distro that isn’t managed by a for-profit company like Canonical, but my patience for fiddling around with these things is limited, so I keep putting it off. One of these days. Baby steps.
- What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?
Unity. Because it’s there and I haven’t bothered to learn how to change it.
- What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?
For almost a decade now, with some gaps, I’ve done the bulk of my writing in Emacs in the terminal. I did this when I was using a Mac, too. To me, the simple interface and the limitless adaptability of the program is a perfect balance between a word processor and a typewriter. I also made myself a little script so that there’s a built-in interface with Markdown that enables me to easily typeset files in Emacs and send them to Firefox in .html or LibreOffice in .odt. For email, I use Thunderbird. I also use various open productivity tools more or less happily: GIMP, Scribus, Inkscape, etc.
- What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?
A little Asus Zenbook. It’s an obvious rip-off of a MacBook Air — beautifully light. Like on all my equipment, I have black electrical tape over the brand name. It seems to me that if you pay to buy a thing, you shouldn’t have to also be advertising it all the time, both to yourself and others. It mostly works really well with Ubuntu, though I had to make a number of tweaks, and the trackpad still doesn’t always do what I want.
- Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?
Yeah. I rely like crazy on Workplace Switcher. One workplace is for email, one for web browsing, one for the terminal, and one for the beautiful, clean desktop. The background is a drawing of mine.
Interview conducted June 24, 2013