Bryan makes some great arguments for using Linux: that it works well and lets people work exactly the way they want to. It’s the main reason I use it. He has some great stuff about his workflow. Using gedit as a content hub and pandoc as a transformation tool is an interesting idea (also, I didn’t think anyone else loved gedit as much as I do). One of the things I appreciated about cascading style sheets was that they separated content from design; Bryan’s setup is very much a logical extension of that concept. The major lesson of Bryan’s interview is that work (and workflow) need to come before technology. He’s done a great job of figuring things out for himself. My only suggestion to Bryan would be that he expand his pen world to include Sharpie Fine Points, which have been a revelation for me.
- Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Bryan Behrenshausen, a doctoral student in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I teach classes and do research in media and cultural studies, and I’m currently working on a dissertation about the cultural politics of information. I also write about open source culture at opensource.com, where I’m the site’s perpetual intern (three years running!). Online, I go by semioticrobotic.
- Why do you use Linux?
Here’s the thing: Linux-based, open source computing technologies simply work better for me than any proprietary option I’ve ever encountered. Open source software allows me to do what I want to do, in precisely the way I want to do it, with results I know I can trust. I rely on open standards to ensure the work I do and the products I both create and collect survive this age of rapidly changing platforms—one in which, it seems, people who don’t have my best interests at heart are keen on having a hand in what I can and can’t do. Open source technologies traffic primarily in these standards, so I tend to gravitate to them.
- What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?
I spend every day with the Precise Pangolin—Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. For years I installed each new version of Ubuntu on its release day, but because I never perform anything other than fresh installations (same goes for everyone else, right?), I eventually grew tired of upending my work environment every six months. Now I sit on every LTS release like it’s an egg. And besides, I’m such a habitual person—I walk the same university paths every day and buy my pens in bulk so I introduce as little variability into my routine as possible—that the LTS rhythm just suits me.
- What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?
I use GNOME Shell. There. I said it. And you know what? I love it. Not everyone does. I realize that. A desktop environment is like any other environment people frequently inhabit—a complex ecology that facilitates certain kinds of knowing and doing. Desktop environments aren’t just “tools;” they’re atmospheres. So selecting one is an extraordinarily personal endeavor. The beauty of open source software is that users can architect for themselves the environments that make them most comfortable—rather than resign themselves to inhabiting something that someone else thinks is best for them. The first time I used GNOME Shell, I felt like I was home. It’s simple, elegant, intuitive, and efficient—love at first byte.
- What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?
Just one, eh? Oh, but you are cruel. In that case, I choose the magnificent pandoc, document conversion “Swiss army knife.” As a writer and academic, I spend the bulk of my time in a text editor composing essays, lectures, research notes, outlines, student quizzes, dissertation chapters, and emails. And for doing all this, I use one application: gedit. This single-application approach means I never spend unnecessary time considering which tool X I’ll need in order to complete task Y. In my case, the answer is always the same: gedit. For everything. I make a point of writing every day (all the great ones say that’s what you’re supposed to do), and the best way to ensure writing proceeds as smoothly as possible is to eliminate any unnecessary cognitive activity that would detract from the actual task of writing (again—routine!). So every day it’s the same: sit down, open lid, click gedit, start writing.
And yet gedit is not my “pick” here—because when I’ve finished something, the next question is: What is it going to do? Where is this piece headed? This is where pandoc becomes indispensable. It’ll accept my Markdown’ed text and turn it into whatever I need: an ODT file, an HTML file—even an ePub ebook, if that’s what I require. Only when the writing is done do I start considering all the technical nonsense that would have otherwise kept me from writing as soon as possible (and believe me, I love the technical nonsense; fiddling with LibreOffice styles or reading HTML5 documentation are my absolute favorite distractions). Pandoc simply obviates so much of the post-writing rigmarole—the stuff that would preoccupy me before and during the actual writing (is this the right tool for this job? how does this font look instead? will so-and-so be able to work with this when I’m done? will I be able to access this next year?)—and in this way is even more important than the text editor itself. It’s the tool that facilitates the harmonious synchrony of all others.
- What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?
My one and only machine is a Lenovo ThinkPad x131e with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. It’s a notebook computer designed for use by primary school students, so I figured it could withstand everything a PhD candidate could throw at it (those early morning library sessions can get pretty treacherous, you know). And to date it hasn’t disappointed me.
But I chose this computer primarily for its size. For years I experimented with Linux notebooks of varying dimensions. First there was the Eee PC 701. Then the Eee PC 901. Then the Acer Aspire 1410. Then the System76 Lemur UltraThin. Each machine had its own merits, but I’ve now discovered that 11.6 diagonal inches is my “sweet spot"—small enough to be truly portable, yet large enough to house a full-size keyboard. The ThinkPad X131e combines everything I liked about my former computers into what I consider the perfect package. Plus, it runs Linux without much coaxing. And the keyboard is a friggin’ dream.
- Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?
I sure will.
Interview conducted August 28, 2013