The Linux Setup – Nabeel Siddiqui, Academic

Nabeel gives a great interview. What makes it so great? The level of detail is fascinating. But also, I agree with just about everything he says about why he uses Linux. Right down to his recommendation of Decoding Liberation. Knowledge workers need machines that make their life easier and Linux lets people simplify their lives by creating custom workflows. As Nabeel alludes to, finding the right setup can take time, but once it’s been created, you’re pretty much set. Then, it’s just a matter of tweaking when necessary. Not everyone needs this level of customization, but I think lots of people would benefit from trying it and seeing if their work does become easier.

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

    I am a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. My research focuses on digital media studies, information studies, digital humanities, and cultural history. Very broadly, I am interested in the ways that humanities questions can inform our understanding of digital technology, and similarly, how digital technology allows us to ask new humanities questions. Currently, I am writing a dissertation examining the cultural history of personal computers and their relationship with the private sphere. Hopefully, I will be able to complete it sometime between my computer tinkering and teaching duties!

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    I can go to length about this, but as brief as I can be, there are four reasons.

    First, I care deeply about the philosophical implications of our digital world and the tools we scholars use to do our research. Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter’s Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software is the best work I have found on the subject, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the exploring free and open source software’s implications.

    Second, I like tinkering with my computer, and Linux allows me to learn about its makeup, which benefits and informs my teaching/research.

    Three, I have a broader range of hardware to choose from. The last Macbook I had stopped working due to a logic board failure. I still don’t know what happened, and the cost to replace it was about the same as a new computer. I had a similar experience with two iPhones and realized remaining locked to a vendor was a bad idea.

    Four, it matches my workflow. I try to stick to a keyboard-centric workflow, and some tools I use work better and are easier to customize in Linux.

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

    I run Ubuntu MATE 16.04 LTS. I like the community and philosophy behind it and think it’s a great, fast distribution for beginners and experts alike. I don’t really need the latest software, so the Ubuntu Long Term Support distributions work for me. I can find a PPA if I really have to. I don’t have the patience or time anymore for something like a rolling distribution. Thus, I’ll probably keep this setup until the next LTS or the computer gives out.

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

    I use the MATE applets with the i3 window manager. For anyone interested in a similar setup, all you have to do is go to to the startup applications of any modular desktop environment (Xfce, LXDE, or MATE) and execute the “startup applications” terminal commands in your i3 config file.

    I also like having multiple workspaces. For instance, this is how I set up my workspaces for writing:

    • Workspace 1: Split i3 interface with terminal for recoll and an outline of what I’m writing
    • Workspace 2: Split i3 interface with my writing and a singular reference document in Zathura or website in w3m/Firefox
    • Workspace 3: Tabbed i3 interface with PDFs and websites for reference. I take the ones I want to reference at any time for my writing and move them to the second workspace.
    • Workspace 4: Split i3 interface with stopwatch and to-do list
    • Workspace 5 (Miscellaneous): Tabbed or split i3 interface with pianobar (a terminal Pandora app) and email, RSS reader, or Firefox.

    I would say that my workflow is definitely niche, and I am aware of that.

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

    My must-have application is probably the terminal (with fish shell), since the majority of my workflow involves it. Here is a list of applications I use regularly:

    • Application Launcher: dmenu Extended with Rofi. It’s the best launcher I’ve ever used, and I hope more people download and contribute to it.
    • File Manager: Ranger or Caja
    • Editor: G/Vim. I use this for all my writing, to-do lists, outlines, etc.
    • Email: Mutt
    • Audio: Pianobar (Pandora) or MPS-YouTube
    • Clock/Timer: Termdown
    • PDF Reader: Zathura or FoxitReader. I wish Linux had better support for highlighting and annotating PDFs.
    • Office Software: LibreOffice, or if I must, Microsoft Office in a virtual machine
    • Web Browser: Firefox with VimFX or w3m
    • Shell: fish using GNOME terminal. The MATE terminal seems to have some strange glitches
    • Research Database Manager: recoll through the command line or Zotero.
    • RSS Reader: Newsbeuter. I open articles in an external browser like w3m or Firefox if I need to, and if the article is very long, I use the “Send to Kindle” extension in Firefox to read on my Kindle later.

    Outside of the web browser (sometimes, I even use w3m) and the PDF readers, I don’t really use that many GUI centric applications that aren’t desktop applets.

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

    For work, I just have a single laptop, which is a Dell XPS 13. I attach it to a 29-inch LG ultrawide monitor, which shines tremendously with i3. I use a constantly-running script to change the DPI, turn Bluetooth on and off, etc, when I connect and disconnect the monitor. As for other hardware, I use a Kinesis Freestyle 2 Keyboard (a Bluetooth split keyboard), and a Logitech MX Master mouse. I also have Bose Q25 noise-canceling headphones to drown out noise.

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    Sure. There are usually five or six workspaces I have setup, but I’ll provide a screenshot of a blank desktop and a fake “busy” one. I set my terminal to an Arc-dark theme one afternoon, while I was bored, so they all match my GUI theme.

Interview conducted September 30, 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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