The Linux Setup – Stefano Zacchiroli, Former Debian Project Leader

Stefano is my great white whale. I’ve been trying to interview him for years, so I was very excited when he was able to make some time for this. He’s a Debian user, as you might expect from a former Debian Project Leader. Stefano also has a lot of nice things to say about GNOME Shell. And mutt users will want to check out his software list, as there’s a lot of nice Emacs integrations in there.

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

    My name is Stefano Zacchiroli, but I usually go by the nickname “Zack.” I’m a computer science researcher and teacher, as well as a Free Software activist. I’m a Debian Developer, former three-time Debian Project Leader, and a Director at the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

    These days my Debian involvement is mostly in Quality Assurance and in the development of infrastructure pieces like Debian Sources. In the past I’ve maintained many packages, e.g., the OCaml stack, Vim, and various Python modules.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    I use Free Software in general—Linux, GNU, GNOME, end-user applications, etc.—to be in control of my own computations. I love the feeling of knowing that I can peek at any point in the software stack, make the changes that I see fit, and share any bit I please with my peers. I refuse to believe that software is a black box, remotely controlled by someone else, and that users should need permission to exercise elementary digital rights on software.

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

    Debian testing. It’s just the best (not to mention the first) “rolling release” out there: it offers a great trade-off between software freshness and not being too bleeding edge for use on your productivity machine.

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

    GNOME 3 with GNOME Shell. Philosophically, I like the GNOME project, their vision, and the courage they have had to reinvent the desktop after many years in which nobody was innovating. But I’m also technically quite happy about GNOME Shell. I love full-text searching for applications, the big switch to mute notifications, the no frills approach, and the well-rounded app integration.

    The only feature I miss in off-the-shelf GNOME Shell is tiling window management (there is some tiling support in GNOME Shell, like splitting the screen in half with two main windows, but I do use more complex window arrangements than that). To fill that gap I’m using the Shellshape extension; the result is good enough for my needs.

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

    To give an idea of my work flow, here is a list of tools that I use on a daily basis (in no particular order):

    • mutt
    • notmuch (with mutt integration)
    • Emacs (in client/server mode)
    • git
    • git-annex
    • org-mode (again, with mutt integration)
    • Chromium (although I’m considering switching back to Firefox)
    • screen
    • irssi
    • ssh (and more and more often mosh)
    • ikiwiki
  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    My main hardware is my laptop, which I always carry with me. I’m now at my third iteration of (Lenovo) ThinkPads over a period of more than six years and, overall, I’m a satisfied user. As a geek I mostly interact with my OS by typing, and ThinkPad’s keyboards are just unparalleled, in my estimation.

    My current ThinkPad is a T440s, i7 CPU, 12GB RAM, 512GB SSD, and a Full HD display (not touchscreen, as I don’t see the point of it). My main regret with ThinkPads is the need to use non-free firmware to get the Intel Wi-Fi working.

    Dear Intel, would you please give up on that, liberate your firmware, and finally set your users free?

    When at the office I connect my laptop to an external LCD monitor and the best mechanical keyboard I’ve ever used: a Das Keyboard Model S Ultimate. To ease the connection, I use a basic Lenovo docking station, and I also have many (five or more, I think) Lenovo-ish AC adapters: one for the office, one near the couch at home, one for each backpack, etc.

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?


    Here is my GNOME Shell workspace three, the one I use for the main ongoing “work” activity during a typical coding session. In the screenshot you can see three windows, tailed automatically by Shellshape: Emacs for coding, Evince for doc reading, and a GNOME terminal running tests (in case you’re wondering, no, I refuse to use Emacs as an entire OS, and I dislike running “terminals” in it).

Stefano Zacchiroli's desktop

Interview conducted July 28, 2014

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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