The Linux Setup – Phil Shapiro, Educational Technologist

I know Phil from his lovely review of my book, Learn Linux in a Month of Lunches. I also know him from Twitter, where he’s very funny. Phil’s interview gets at a lot of the wonderful things he does to not just promote Linux, but to open people’s minds to it. I also love that his Library has a Linux Genius Bar! Helping the public in that way is brave, since you have to be familiar with lots of hardware and distros. But it’s also generous, since not everyone has the technological or financial resources to get their machine up-and-running. Phil makes me proud to work in libraries!

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

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

    My name is Phil Shapiro and I work as an technology educator and help-desk person at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, a small library in a close-by suburb of Washington, DC. Our library offers 27 Linux stations to the public, seven days a week. We use a commercial Linux solution, Userful, from a company by the same name in Calgary, Alberta. The Userful solution is built on top of Fedora and works in a magical-sort-of-way to provide multiple seats connected to a single desktop. I explain this magic in this short YouTube video.

    A typical work day for me is often quite varied. People ask me for help applying for jobs, using LibreOffice to write letters or make flyers, how to crop photos in GIMP, and a myriad of other things. The town where I work and live, Takoma Park, has residents from 92 nations, so it’s delightful working in that mix. I speak French quite a bit at work—and also a speak a smattering of Amharic, Somali, and sign language. I’m a beginner at sign language, but there’s nothing more rewarding than answering a deaf community members’ question in sign. I lived in France as a kid, so my French is functional, albeit not fluent.

    In my free time at work, I install Linux on any laptop or desktop that people bring me. This is not an official library service, but my supervisor (who also loves Linux), lets me do this as long as its not interfering with my other library duties. I like to think of myself as a Linux Genius Bar. A friendly, no-cost Linux genius bar. Once I even figured out someone’s difficult Linux WiFi driver issue. He was amazed that he could get such help at the public library. I explained to him, “You brought me a good question and I found you a good answer. That’s what libraries are for.”

    I also pride myself on not being a Linux hard-sell person. I never tell people, “You should use Linux.” My approach is to say, “Linux is worth considering. Would you like me to explain why I think so?” When Windows or Mac seems like a better solution for a person’s particular needs, I’m not shy about saying, “I think Windows (or Mac) would be best for you.” And then I explain why.

    Incidentally, some Linux enthusiast are not pro-Chromebook. I am pro-Chromebook. Why? Because Chromebooks are a stepping stone to a GalliumOS full Linux laptop, which I explain here.

    If enough Linux enthusiasts request computer manufacturers to produce a GalliumOS laptop, then they will produce a GalliumOS laptop. I have been to the mountain top and I have seen the promised land—and to me, it looks a lot like GalliumOS.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    I use Linux becomes its the most logical path towards a more inclusive, healthful, hopeful, and less violent world.

    Linux also makes it more difficult for big tech companies to be bullies. I wrote about one aspect of that in this PCWorld article. Linux allows old hardware to be born again (or, as I explain to the public at my public library job, “Linux allows old computers to be born again. (pause) Born again – Halleluyah!”)

    I feel a duty to make YouTube videos explaining Linux refurbished computers:

    Of course, I sing about Linux often:

    If you’re not singing, how can people understand the joy you feel in your heart?

    Incidentally, in case anyone is interested in how I first came to open source, I’ve chronicled that story here: “The Day My Mind Became Open Sourced.”

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

    I’m a big fan of Linux Mint Xfce.

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

    I’m a fan of Xfce because it is so lightweight and fast. I often show Linux Mint to people visiting the library and I want to show them Linux running at its fastest and most responsive. I like to explain that a Vista laptop upgraded to Linux Mint Xfce might be as much as three times faster—on the same hardware. People don’t believe me until they see it. Then the believe me.

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

    I could not live without Simple Screen Recorder. It’s my favorite Linux screencasting program. I use it to create many of the video book reviews you can find here.

    I should add, screencasting software is vital for librarians because screencasting is a storytelling art. I’m surprised that few other librarians are big on screencasting. I recently turned to screencasting to make these videos:

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

    I use a Core2Duo ThinkPad and an external 23-inch Samsung monitor (1920 x 1080.) I’m eager to try Linux screencasting on 2560 x 1440—and 4K monitors—hopefully within the next year or so. Some people might not realize that screencasting is “making videos.” You don’t need a camcorder, either (although a nice webcam can come in handy. I always prefer Logitech for webcams. For a good deal, buy your webcam on eBay. The Logitech C270 is very affordable and gives you 720p video; ample for almost all screencasting uses).

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    For that, I plead the 5th amendment: “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Imagine 95 icons and folders on the desktop. Scattered. That’s what my desktop looks like—after I’ve spent time tidying it up.

Interview conducted August 16, 2017


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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