The Linux Setup – Andrew Conway, Astronomer/Podcaster

I know Andrew from his Linux Voice work. It’s interesting to learn how he came to Linux through academia. It just goes to show the importance of powerful software on solid hardware and how it can change your life. Andrew is also a KDE user who feels he hasn’t tapped into the full potential of that desktop. Of course, if anyone did tap into everything KDE could do, they’d get sucked into the Matrix, so I’m glad he hasn’t.

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

    My name is Andrew Conway but I’m known as mcnalu online. I studied physics and astronomy at university, then got a PhD in trying to predict sunspot number using neural networks. I then became a lecturer (professor in American parlance) in astrophysics at the Open University in England, and worked on NASA’s RHESSI mission at Goddard Space Flight Centre, but after a few years I felt I’d spent enough time in academia, so I returned to Glasgow, Scotland where I started a software business with friends. That spawned another company which launched me into several frenetic years of venture-capital-fueled, start-up madness in which I learned a lot. These days I’ve settled into a good balance between family life with my wife and children and work. The latter involves writing, coding and lecturing on astronomy. I’m on several podcasts including TuxJam, Duffercast, Rational Intuition, and various Hacker Public Radio shows. I also write regularly for Linux Voice.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    When I finished my PhD at Glasgow University in 1995, I got a post-doctoral research job and some money to buy a PC for running numerical simulations. My dad (he started with computers in the 1960s) pointed out that for that money I could buy a new-fangled Pentium, put Slackware Linux on it, and have a computer that outpaced the much more expensive Sun workstations the astronomy department was using. Not only was I the envy of the other astronomers for the computing power I had, but I could listen to CDs using workbone, too. It took me another ten years to wake up to the significance of Linux’s GNU and free software underpinnings and that transformed me from a user into an enthusiast and inveterate tinkerer/hacker.

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

    Slackware still! I have used Red Hat (pre-enterprise) and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on my main laptop over the years, but Slackware just suits me so well that it keeps drawing me back. When a new release comes out I spend a pleasant few hours setting it up and thereafter it just works and stays out of my way. Maintenance is very light, only needing a few minutes every few weeks to apply package patches that maintainer Patrick Volkerding distributes promptly when security issues come out.

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

    KDE. I use only a tiny fraction of what it can do and leave most things at their defaults, but I like knowing I can tweak almost anything when I need to. A few years back I got a desire to try a minimal tiling window manager instead and so ditched KDE and went with dwm with dmenu. I really liked it but some heavy-weight applications that I have to use for work misbehaved, such as NetBeans, which refused to start. In the end I went back to KDE. It’s an itch I still want to scratch though.

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

    I still use the command line a lot and have done since day one with Linux, so I’ll pick GNU coretutils which contains ls, mv, cp, rm, tail, etc.

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

    I’ve got a Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition that came with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. It’s the last non-touch screen version and once a few faults were fixed under warranty, I’ve been very happy with it.

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    Of course!

Andrew Conway's desktop

Interview conducted January 12, 2016


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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