This is the first post in what I hope will be an ongoing series on the tools I use as a historian. I’ll link future posts in as they appear.
In recent months, as Elon Musk’s new regime on twitter has careered from crisis to crisis, many academics have been looking for alternative social media sites or networking tools.
I’ve seen some revive old blogs, others have shifted to Instagram, while others argued that the public square should not be ceded to the likes of Musk and the far right trolls encouraged by his support for ‘free speech’. Several smaller sites have attracted new users as people either left twitter altogether or set up alternatives in case of complete collapse.
Of these Mastodon has been the most discussed and attracted many new users, including me. But this isn’t a post about Mastodon (here’s a good Mastodon starter guide if that’s what you’re after), it’s a post that started life as a Mastodon thread. I’ve edited it to bring it more in line with a blog format. This is a post about an operating system: Ubuntu.
Why and how I made the switch to Ubuntu
While we are thinking about the power of social media platforms, it feels like an appropriate moment to think about the tools we use more broadly. With that in mind, I think it’s worth publicly discussing some changes I’ve made in to my working patterns in recent years. These were intended to reduce the role of commercial tools in producing my research and writing. I hope this post may be of interest to fellow historians, humanities scholars, writers, and others, who are considering the challenges of big tech monopolies.
When I started my PhD I scraped together what money I had to buy a new HP Windows laptop. It was a decent workhorse and I enjoyed the easy integration with OneDrive; I wrote my thesis on Word, using Zotero (desktop version) as a reference manager and citation tool. These tools all played pretty well together, but there were times of concerning, mysterious failures. OneDrive in particular, although brilliant when working, needed regular doses of TLC to keep it functioning properly. By the end of my PhD the computer was deadly slow.
Having been fortunate enough to secure some funding after the PhD, I felt that it was time to invest in a more professional level tool. I spent a lot of the last year of my PhD imagining the next machine I would buy myself (we all need our procrastination techniques!). I felt that some of the speed problems I had were not just because of ageing laptop hardware, but the greediness of Windows processes and software running in the background. After all, the computer was only a few years old.
(At some point I installed a Linux partition running ElementaryOS. I don’t want this post to get too bogged down in technicalities, but I suppose this sentence needs some explanation: Linux is the basic core of a whole host of open source operating systems; a partition is separating out some of you computer’s storage so that you can use it to run an additional operating system; ElementaryOS is a Linux operating system, similar in look to the MacOS that Apple computers run. Having installed this partition, I now had a computer with two different operating systems available.
This was an interesting experiment, enough to give me confidence that I could work in a Linux environment. At the time I couldn’t switch over yet, because my thesis had progressed far enough that I was pretty much stuck with Windows tools. The fact that the partition seemed to run noticeably faster than the Windows part of the machine reinforced the idea that it wasn’t the hardware that was the real problem. So when I looked into buying a new machine, I was willing to think seriously about Linux options.)
I was unwilling to spend a significant amount of money locking myself into either the Windows or Apple universe. In the end I bought a laptop from Juno Computers, running Ubuntu https://junocomputers.com/ (you can install Ubuntu on any computer, but having one designed for and shipped with it makes compatibility issues less likely).
I should say that although I am very interested in technology, I am not a high-level user of it really. I had messed about with Ubuntu as a way of saving an old Windows XP machine once, but couldn’t get it working properly. Things are far less finicky than they were back then though: Ubuntu may have its differences from the dominant operating systems, but I haven’t found these to be any huge barrier.
I did have one recurring issue with sound, but was able to fix this eventually thanks to the lively community of Ubuntu users. Any problem I’ve had so far has been discussed by others already, so you can piggy-back on their solutions and discussions. Although I’m not techie, I do quite like investigating these solutions, so perhaps I take some pleasure from a bit of trouble-shooting that others wouldn’t. That said, I lost more work time fixing Windows issues than I have fixing anything on Ubuntu.
My writing workflow on Ubuntu
Now then, it’s all very well to say I’ve escaped the two major commercial operating systems, but how do I actually work? How do I get things done? For some time, alongside my experiments in operating systems, I had been fiddling about with alternatives to Word. Of course, there are good open source word processors out there (I use LibreOffice Writer), but the more I considered what my objection to Word was the less it seemed about Word itself and more about writing directly in a word processor at all.
In essence I felt as though using such high level software for all stages of writing distracted from the words and put too much focus on the look. Anyone who’s ever tried to write anything long has surely shared this Bojack Horseman experience to some extent
I found much discussion of Latex online, and attempted to use this for a while, but I found it very complex and I never felt I had control of it. Instead, at some point in the early months of switching to Ubuntu, I started experimenting with Markdown and this has become my favoured mode of first draft writing over the last two years. This is very minimal compared to Latex, but I found this opened-up a free-er style of writing, where I progress from notes to first draft more easily
Writing in Markdown means writing in plain text, so there is no time lost in the first phase writing to thinking about how it looks on the page. The formatting stage, which comes later, can feel as though it takes longer, but there’s great value, I think, in separating it out. You can also edit Markdown files with any plain text editor, so your documents are not tied to one version of one proprietary software. This is a nice intro to how to use Markdown and why you might want to.
What this means In practical terms is that all my documents start life as markdown files. Only when they are quite well progressed do I generate a document for formatting through a word processor. I use libreoffice for this, though one could just as well use Word or anything else. There’s a way of integrating zotero with markdown so that full citations in your preferred style are generated when you generate this document.
It’s taken quite some time to be fully comfortable working like this and I still look up how to do even basic things, but it’s put me in a healthier relationship with my writing tools. My work progresses in clearer stages from ideas (writing by hand) to drafting (markdown) to final editing and formatting (word processor). Having several stages also gives me lots of opportunities to make small changes in phrasing that improve things gradually. I’m very happy with this workflow.
This has all been about how I go about doing my own work. When it comes to collaboration I’m all for tools that work in browser, and using Ubuntu is no barrier to these. So long as things remain in browser, my working practices don’t look any different from someone using an apple or windows machine.
I hope this post has been of interest! I am a historian of the built environment, currently working at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. If you have questions about how I use any of the tools mentioned, or would just like to chat about alternative ways of working, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org