LJ Archive

The Open-Source Classroom

The Way I Do the Things I Do

Shawn Powers

Issue #233, September 2013

A peek into Shawn's toy box.

Since my “Trying to Tame the Tablet” article was published in the February 2013 issue of LJ, I've been getting a steady stream of e-mail messages asking about what tools and programs I use on a daily basis. Because this is our How-To issue, I figured it would be appropriate to give a rundown on how I do the things I do. I must warn you though, I'm not going to pull any punches—I use multiple operating systems every day. Thankfully, Linux is still king, so I'll try to keep my other dallyings to a minimum.

The Hardware—Desk

I have two main workspaces in my office. The first is for my day job, which requires me to use a giant Wacom monitor and Windows 7. I do Linux training during the day, so that Windows 7 machine has about a dozen Linux VMs and uses Camtasia for recording.

Everything else I do is at my personal workspace. That's the area I focus on here, because it's the place I've configured exactly the way I like. Figure 1 shows my workspace. The chair is just a cheap office chair from an office supply store. You'll notice there aren't any armrests on the chair, which is because I took them off (Figure 2). Armrests annoy me while I work, and if I'm doing any recording, I find the headphone/microphone cables get tangled. Plus, I sometimes sit cross-legged in my office chair, and that's not possible with armrests in the way.

Figure 1. Booted in to Xubuntu. Model helicopter not included.

Figure 2. This chair isn't fancy, but it works.

The computer I use was purchased based on the TonyMac Hackintosh Mini-Mac build (snar.co/customac). My hardware is actually from last year's recommendations, but it still is able to dual-boot OS X 10.8.4 and Xubuntu 13.04. I'm very fond of Apple's Chiclet-style keyboard, so I'm using that and a Magic Mouse for input.

For simple recording or VoIP calls, I use my wireless Plantronics CS50 USB headset. The software for the device is Windows-only, but as a headset and microphone, it works just fine. I think the button on the side is a gimmick anyway, so I'm not upset by the lack of software support. If I'm recording something where sound quality matters, I have a Sennheiser USB headset and microphone combo. The model I use is long discontinued, but I love the quality of every Sennheiser I've ever owned.

My monitor is just a 24" 1080p monitor I got from woot.com for $350. My dream monitor is the 30" Dell Ultrasharp, but so far, Santa Claus hasn't brought me one. I'm connecting to the computer via DVI, but only because I couldn't find an HDMI cable in “the big box of tangled cable”.

Currently, I don't have a printer. It's not due to my desire to go paperless, but rather because, like a fool, I went back to an inkjet printer a year ago, and it's been problematic ever since. My hatred for inkjets has been renewed 1000%. Because this article is meant to reflect my work environment, I can tell you that I hope to purchase a Brother color laser printer soon. I've had wonderful luck with Brother printers through the years, and they always seem to have decent Linux support. I haven't chosen a model number yet, but it will be a Brother for sure. (I'm trying to decide whether I should buy the multifunction machine with a FAX, or just let the old technology die. The problem is, I still need a FAX from time to time.)

The Hardware—Mobile

My mobile hardware recently has undergone a change, at least partially. My last job provided an iPhone, so that was what I used for years. My new training job allowed me to get whatever type of phone I wanted, so I chose the Samsung Galaxy S4. I tend to use my smartphone a lot during the day, so even with the S4's impressive power management, I had to buy an oversized battery. I bought the Hyperion 5200mAh battery (snar.co/s4battery), which came with a custom phone back to fit the bulge. Hyperion also offers a case to fit the bulging phone, so I bought that as well (snar.co/s4case). It certainly isn't as svelte as the out-of-the-box S4, but I think it's less bulky than my old iPhone with the Mophie Juicepack (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The blue matches my car. So does the size.

I do still have my Google Nexus 7 tablet, whose original tale inspired this article. I've purchased at least five cases for that tablet, ranging from a neoprene sleeve to a Bluetooth keyboard case. In the end, I've defaulted to using a simple clamshell case. I also have the same stylus mentioned in the earlier article, and although I don't write with it, I find the precision of using a stylus helpful at times. (Crayon Physics, I'm looking at you.)

For the past ten years or so, my daily driver laptop has been a MacBook Pro, because that's what was provided by my employer. (No, not Linux Journal!) I don't have a work-provided laptop anymore, so I spend my couch-surfing time largely with the computer I'm typing on right now: the same Dell D420 I was given by a reader when our house burned down four years ago. It's been upgraded with a PATA SSD and a new battery, but this laptop has been faithful for years, and now as my full-time machine, I have no complaints. It's showing its age in that the screen hinges are loose, but that's truly my only complaint.

I also have a Samsung Chromebook (the ARM-based one Bill Childers reviewed in the July 2013 issue), and although my original plan was to use that as my main computer, my kids have had other plans. They use my Chromebook constantly, and I rarely get to play with it. If you wonder whether a Chromebook would be a good fit for your kids, given my experience, the answer is a hearty yes.

I do still have my old Samsung Galaxy S2 phone, which no longer has cell service. I've been using it as an audiobook player and GPS in my car. I keep the audiobooks updated by having FolderSync (an Android app) run over Wi-Fi from the driveway overnight. As long as I route my trip while still in the driveway, Google Maps seems to cache the entire trip without the need for a constant data connection. If I need to route a new trip while away from the house, I just activate the mobile hotspot on my S4 and leave it on long enough to create the map cache. So far, it's been a good solution, and it keeps my phone in my pocket so I don't leave it in the car.

The Mobile Software

Let me start with my mobile devices. For the software section, I'll lump my laptops in with my desktop, because they use the same applications. My phones and laptops, being Android, run separate programs. Here's a list of things I regularly use:

  • Candy Crush Saga: yes, I'm addicted, I'll admit. I resisted for a long time, because I didn't want to connect to Facebook and pollute my timeline with Candy Crush requests. It turns out, if you don't connect to Facebook, you still can keep playing by completing quests. If you've never tried Candy Crush, I'm not sure whether I should recommend it. You will become addicted. (I'm currently on level 133, and I've never purchased anything in the game, nor do I plan to.)

  • Kindle: I've tried many e-book readers on many different platforms. The Kindle interface isn't my favorite, but I love the cross-device Whispersync, and I find E Ink to be my favorite for long reads. Because I can read a chapter or two on my phone, then continue reading on my Kindle keyboard (Wi-Fi-only) later that night, it's become my go-to reading app. Now that Whispersync works for personal documents, Kindle doesn't even annoy me anymore.

  • Gas Buddy: this was more useful when we lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, because gas prices could vary 20–25 cents a gallon at stations just a couple miles apart. Now that we're back in Small-Town USA, I don't use this as often, because the prices always are the same.

  • LED Flashlight: I can't believe how much I use this app. I think I use it more now than ever before, because it's possible to launch from my phone's lockscreen. I've always found flashlight apps cumbersome to find and start, but no more. I really do use this every day, sometimes several times a day.

  • Camera: I try to take funny photos as often as I can. Like everyone else on the planet, now I have a camera in my pocket. Like the flashlight, the ability to launch the camera from the lockscreen makes it more convenient, and more used.

  • Google Music: I don't listen to music often, but I keep a few albums on Google Music, because I know I can reach it anywhere. I most often use it to play a Jonathan Coulton song for someone who's never heard it before.

  • Linux Journal: I honestly don't use the Linux Journal app very often. By the time the issues go live, I've already been reading through them during the entire production process. I keep the app for the same reason I use Google Music though—to show others cool things!

  • Yaste: we lose our television remote more often than I care to admit. Yaste is a great XBMC remote. It's not as nice as using the regular MCE remote, but it's usually easier to find.

  • Dock Clock: I haven't had a clock radio in years, but I still miss the large digital time next to my bed. Dock Clock automatically activates when I plug in the charger, and it allows me to create the clock radio feel while still using the far-superior cell-phone alarm system (Figure 5).

  • Google Mail: well, yeah. I almost forgot to include it, but I use it constantly.

  • Chrome: Same here. I almost didn't include it, but I realize there are other Web browsers, and not everyone uses Chrome. The only annoyance I have is that there's no way to enable the “bookmark bar” like in the desktop version of Chrome. I understand it would be cramped on my phone, but on the tablet, it would be awesome.

  • Smart Audiobook Player: Best. Audiobook. Player. Ever. I love everything about Smart Audiobook Player. I listen to most books at 1.4x or 1.5x depending on the narrator, and I don't notice any “chipmunk” effect at all. I do have the Audible app too, but I try my best to use straight up MP3 files for audiobooks and sync them with FolderSync.

  • Social media: I'm a social-media junkie, so I have Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, Instagram, SnapChat, Flickr and G+. I usually initiate most things with Twitter, but try to respond on most networks.

Figure 4. I'm an addict. I dream about striped candy and power balls.

Figure 5. My clock radio in 1993 only wishes it looked this cool.

The Desktop Software

These days, most of my desktop applications are really just Web apps. There are a few native apps that I can't live without though:

  • Pithos: this plays music from the Pandora network. It works flawlessly, and I love it. If I ever want to hear some music, I usually just turn on Pithos, because my personal music collection is rather small.

  • TextRoom: in a pinch, I still use the Chrome app Writebox, but for most writing (like what I'm doing now), I still use TextRoom. For a while, it was difficult to use, because it wouldn't install on modern Ubuntu versions. Thankfully, a man named Otto has created a PPA for TextRoom that works perfectly. I owe Otto a beverage of his choosing!

  • Dropbox: thanks to my Chromebook, I now have more than 100GB of space in Google Drive. I've been using Dropbox for so long, however, that it's hard to switch. Perhaps the program I mention in this issue's UpFront section, Insync, will help me transition, but for the present, my 24GB of Dropbox is where I keep most of my writing.

  • Calibre: I have a fairly large collection of e-books, and without Calibre, they'd be a mess. Calibre has plugins for automatically sending books to my Kindle account, so I find myself using it often.

  • Chromium: this really ends the list of native apps I use regularly. I'll occasionally play a game or something, but not very often. Everything else I use regularly is a Chrome extension or plugin.

Web Apps

One of the reasons I love Chrome/Chromium/Chromebooks is that extensions sync just like bookmarks. If I install an app on my laptop, it's waiting for me when I go back to my desk—even if that desk is running a different operating system! Here are the apps I use regularly:

  • MightyText: now that my family has iOS devices and I don't, we can't use iMessage to talk to each other. Thankfully, MightyText brings texting to my browser, so while I'm at a keyboard, I can text at full speed.

  • Evernote: I don't use Evernote as much as I did when I was working in an office setting as a manager, but I still use it as a knowledge repository. The Web app is really nice, and it's usually all I need.

  • Lastpass: I forced myself to migrate all my passwords to Lastpass, and now that I use it all the time, I've come to love it. I'll admit, I didn't care for it at first.

  • Tweetdeck: I've been on a quest to find the best Twitter client since my beloved Twhirl died away. I haven't found one I love, but Tweetdeck's Chrome app comes the closest.

  • CommaFeed: my Google Reader replacement, mentioned in the UpFront section of this very issue.

Green and Black

If Kyle Rankin wrote this article, every application would be replaced with a CLI equivalent. Although I have amazing respect for Kyle's way of computing, I also like shiny things. Still, there are quite a few applications I rely on that have nothing more than green text and a black screen:

  • vim: you know you're a vim user when you are annoyed by “easier” text editors like nano. I can open, edit and save a file quicker than most people can find Ctrl-x on their keyboard to exit nano.

  • Irssi: for IRC chatting, it's hard to beat Irssi. For me, this isn't because I prefer the Irssi interface. Truth be told, I prefer the way Pidgin handles IRC. I like to stay logged in to IRC all the time, however, so I can respond to questions posed while I'm away. The screen command coupled with Irssi accomplishes that for me.

  • SSH: truly, truly the Swiss-Army knife on the command line. Remote shells, tunneling traffic, remote/reverse tunneling, keypair authentication, file copying...SSH is amazing. I use it every day, all day long.

Now for the Interactive Part of Our Show...

So there you have it. That's my computing world in a nutshell. Perhaps you see something helpful, or perhaps you're appalled at my lack of tool usage. Either way, I'd love to hear from you. In fact, if you have a unique application or method for accomplishing your day-to-day tasks, send me an e-mail! I love to highlight new or cool (preferably both) applications or Web sites in our UpFront section. If you send me something awesome, and we publish it, I'll be sure to give you credit for the heads-up. Just drop me an e-mail at info@linuxjournal.com and put something like “[MY WAY]” in the subject. I can't wait to hear how everyone computes!

Shawn Powers is the Associate Editor for Linux Journal. He's also the Gadget Guy for LinuxJournal.com, and he has an interesting collection of vintage Garfield coffee mugs. Don't let his silly hairdo fool you, he's a pretty ordinary guy and can be reached via e-mail at info@linuxjournal.com. Or, swing by the #linuxjournal IRC channel on Freenode.net.

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