The Linux Setup – Dheera Venkatraman, Graduate Student, MIT

As I write this, there’s a fair amount of back-and-forth about actor Wil Wheaton’s off-hand comments on Unity, Ubuntu, and Xfce. The timing is great because Dheera’s interview is all about Linux freeing the user to work in whatever way makes sense to him/her. The point of Linux isn’t to create the perfect distro or desktop environment, because the perfect distro and desktop environment depends very much upon the needs and behaviors of the individual user. So when Wheaton says he doesn’t like Ubuntu and Unity, I don’t think it’s an indictment of those projects, so much as an indication they’re not a great match for him at this time (and just to be clear, I don’t think Wheaton was condemning anything — I think he was casually speaking his mind and not expecting innocuous comments to take hold so quickly across an occasionally news-starved Linux-verse).

Also, not to bury the lede, but Dheera has a great setup, mixing Xfce and Compiz. My previous experiences with Compiz were as something I need to turn off, but this interview made me consider trying it out again.

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

    I’m a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology currently researching single-photon imaging in the Optical and Quantum Communications Group. My side interests include hacking whatever gadgets I can get my hands on, photography, cycling, hiking, piano, and sustainability. As a student I’ve also been involved extensively with the MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum and the MIT Sustainability Summit.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    For me it comes down to customizability, flexibility, security, and being able to take control of everything. In general, Linux never tries to tell me how I’m supposed to use my computer, Linux never tells me that I’m not allowed to do something despite my hardware being capable of it, and Linux never tries to force a user interface upon me. Instead, it gives me the freedom to implement my own visions of how I want my computer to behave, which is exactly what I want technology to do. Also, Linux never tries to “dumb down” technology or hide gory details; when something goes wrong, it tells me precisely what’s wrong, which helps me debug things.

    I’m also a heavy command line user for getting all sorts of batch work done quickly, whether it’s watermarking a thousand photos with custom-generated watermarks, systematically renaming a bunch of files, makeshift e-mail alert systems, or automating desktop publishing tasks; these are all a piece of cake when you have decent command line interfaces to everything and good scripting languages, whereas with most non-free platforms and applications you’re often at the mercy of their GUI interface.

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

    Mostly Mint and Xubuntu. Android on my phone if that counts 🙂

  4. What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?

    Xfce + Compiz. This might seem an unusual combination, but Compiz isn’t really all about effects — it really has some useful productivity features like being able to sketch on your screen (great for presentations!), better customizability of virtual desktops and shortcuts, being able to invert screen colors with a keyboard shortcut, zooming the entire screen, and so on. It’s sad that Compiz seems to have stagnated in development of late. As for Xfce, I used to use GNOME 2 a long time ago, but with the changes in GNOME 3 and especially Unity, I find it extremely inefficient to get any real work done. I dislike desktop icons (I have nothing on my desktop), and I also dislike “smart” menus that dynamically change ordering since it interferes with my muscle memory. I wanted something customizable but simple. Xfce was the answer.

  5. What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?

    Anything and everything that can be interfaced with a command line. I can fill in variables inside an SVG document from a database before generating a PDF with Inkscape, embed the result inside a LaTeX document, compile it, and upload to a server all in one go, for example. You get the idea.

    My preferred music player is the command-line mplayer. I don’t bother with playlists, rather I have my own looping player “shell” that lets me input regular expressions like

    beethoven.*(symphony [5679]|piano concerto [^1]) 

    which searches my music files and calls mplayer on the files that match those regular expressions (in this case, Symphonies 5, 6, 7, and 9, and all Piano Concertos except the first).

  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    My main desktop is running an Intel Core i7-920 with 8GB RAM, a 64GB SSD for the OS, 1TB conventional disk for scratch space, and a 2TB RAID array in a Linux-based NAS box as a file server.

    Various websites I maintain, including my personal website at, are all running on Linux servers as well. I have a couple of laptops that run Linux and I’ve also played with running desktop distributions of Linux on a Nexus 10 tablet (with the LinuxOnAndroid project).

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

Dheera Venkatraman's desktop

Interview conducted December 30, 2013

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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