My Setup

On and off, I read interviews about people’s setups at I particularly enjoyed the interviews of Andrew Huang, Benjamin Mako Hill, Phil Hagelberg, and Russ Cox. For amusement, I’ve decided to reflect on my own computer usage and compile a description of my setup.

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’ve been trained as a mathematician, but over the last a few years I’ve become more interested in programming, particularly functional and mathematically structured programming, and in theoretical computer science, most prominently programming languages theory and compilers. I’ve spent the last two years as a PhD student at NUIM thinking primarily about design and implementation of a novel functional programming language for scientific computing with support for automatic differentiation. I’m beginning a new job in industry in September. I’m going to work on a large commercial product written in Haskell, and I’m looking forward to it.

What hardware do you use?

My only machine is a Lenovo ThinkPad SL 500 laptop running a 2.00 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5870, 3Gb of RAM. It is a two years old machine, and its age is starting to show. Still, at the moment of purchase, it was probably the best laptop with no Windows pre-installed one could buy in Ukraine.

I have recently acquired a Kindle 4, non-touch edition, which I use for reading fiction. I have many papers and books in PDF format that I’d also like to read away from my computer, but I haven’t found an affordable device suitable for that.

And what software?

I run Ubuntu 10.04 (64 bit) on my laptop. I’ve been reluctant to upgrade because upgrades are know to break things and because this particular version has been working pretty well for me. When I want the latest version of some software, I build it from source. The following is a list of applications I use on a daily basis, in the loose order of descending importance.


When I’m working (and often also when I’m not), I’m spending most of my time in Emacs. Compared to other Emacs users, the severity of my addiction to Emacs is modest: Emacs is my text editor, organizer, file manager, and shell. I also have an Emacs interface to Google Translate, which I use as a poor man’s dictionary.

Emacs is one of few pieces of software that I build from source.


The second most used application is the browser. I’ve tried a few different ones: Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera, Chromium, Conkeror. I’m not happy with any of them. The browser I’ve enjoyed most was Conkeror, which is to browsers what Emacs is to editors. However, I had to abandon it because occasionally it would blow up and consume all available RAM and half of available swap, and because it reliably crashes when the laptop is awaken from suspend mode.

Right now I’m using Chromium, for no particular reason. I try to keep the number of open tabs low, otherwise Chromium as well as Google Chrome become a memory drain on my machine.


My window manager is xmonad. A lot has been said in praise of tiling window managers, in particular, about how they make you more productive than conventional desktop environments. I’m not sure I buy that.

I started to use xmonad mainly out of curiosity and because of the hype surrounding it, and also because it is implemented in Haskell, so getting into it was an opportunity to learn some Haskell. Later, when I was interning at Streamtech, a webdev startup from The Hague, I enjoyed the ability to easily tile the browser and a bunch of terminal windows on my screen. Still later, when I was doing PhD at NUIM, I discovered what a joy it was to use xmonad with a dual head setup.

However, right now I’m using it only on my laptop, and I’m not sure if it’s a such a big win there. Unlike other xmonad users, I’m not a terminal junkie. In fact, I don’t run terminals outside Emacs at all, except for the case when I want to ssh to a remote host. I also rarely tile my windows because I don’t have enough screen real estate for that. I run pretty much every application fullscreen all the time, with only a few exceptions. I do like the idea of having dedicated workspaces for different activities, but I rarely use more than 3 simultaneously.

Running pure xmonad on a laptop is also somewhat awkward because one has to think about many things DEs take care for you, for example, having different keyboard layouts and a layout indicator, having a system tray with the network manager applet and battery status, mounting devices etc. That’s why I run xmonad as a drop-in replacement for Metacity in Gnome. This way I get the best of both worlds.

However, I don’t like the direction in which Gnome is heading, and I’ve never liked KDE, so most likely I’m stuck with xmonad, and should I need to reinstall my system, I’ll probably go for some combination of xmonad and Gnome tools.


I use git as my version control system. I almost never use the command line interface. Instead, for frequent tasks like stage, commit, push, pull, create/change/delete a branch, and view diff/log I use magit, an awesome Emacs interface to git. For more complex git surgery there is gitk. I also use git-gui when I want to split a large commit into smaller chunks.


I use LaTeX for typesetting my papers. AUCTeX mode for Emacs is superb. I’m surprised to see people using both LaTeX and Emacs and not using AUCTeX, but rather invoking LaTeX, BibTeX, dvitops and other tools from a shell, either manually or using a makefile. Those people don’t know what they are missing.


I use Evince to view my PDF, PostScript, and DJVU files. Evince is not particularly configurable, and I hate that I have to change settings for every new open file, but it does its job sufficiently well that I don’t have an urge to switch to something better.

My only gripe about Evince is that its DVI viewer doesn’t support forward/inverse search.


That’s why I use xdvi when working with LaTeX. xdvi is old and ugly as hell, but it is fast and its forward/inverse search are killer features for me. Making inverse search work with Emacs used to be a PITA, but AUCTeX takes care of that, too.


I use Skype for VOIP. I like how much cleaner Skype looks on Linux compared to the bloated interface on Windows. For example, I was unable to share screen using Skype on my wife’s Windows laptop.


As I mentioned above, I bought myself a Kindle 4 recently. Because I didn’t want to deal with Amazon, I needed an application to conveniently upload e-books to my device and to occasionally convert between different formats. Calibre performs these tasks seamlessly.

Compilers and Interpreters

I like to explore programming languages, and I have a few compilers and interpreters installed to support my explorations.

I use GHC for Haskell, which is the top pick for my language design experiments. I use SBCL and SLIME for Common Lisp hacking, which I don’t do very often these days and only for small exploratory programs. I use MIT Scheme as my Scheme implementation only because that’s what my friend Alexey uses for his language design experiments.

I used to write some Ruby, but I haven’t done any Ruby hacking for quite a while now. I do have some Ruby scripts lying around that I use occasionally (for downloading BibTeX items from MathSciNet and ACM).

Soon I’m going to add Erlang to the list of language I use/play with. One (or both) of Standard ML and Caml are also interesting, primarily because being strict and non-pure makes programming in these language sufficiently different from programming in Haskell.

Well, that’s it folks. There are, of course, other pieces of software, but I don’t use them nearly as often as the above. I have a large collection of music, which I used to listen to using rhythmbox. These days, I prefer to tune in to Radio Paradise. I don’t do any photo editing except for extremely rare case when I have to resize or crop a picture. I use totem for watching videos, but most of the videos I watch are online. I’ve learned to love Emacs dired mode, and don’t start Nautilus, the default file manager in Gnome, except by accident. I don’t play games. I rarely run OpenOffice, mainly when I’m forced to edit/view Microsoft Office files. For quick document preparation, I prefer Google Docs.

Oh, there is a small Windows app that I run under Wine because I haven’t found a good Linux alternative: AP Guitar Tuner.