Tools of the Trade 1: Some thoughts on using Ubuntu and Markdown as a historian

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 (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

What is the point of the Report of the UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities?

Map of the world with the British Empire shaded in pink. Framed by images of a White Britannia and various colonial rulers and subjects

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Blog on 31 March 2021, Dr Mohammad S Razai, Prof. Azeem Majeed and Prof. Aneez Esmail, tell us: ‘This report is a missed opportunity. It lacks the scientific credibility and authority to be used for major policy decisions. Its methodology and language, its lack of scientific expertise, and the well-known opinions of its authors make it more suitable as a political manifesto rather than an authoritative expert report.’ They are responding to the report published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities released on the same day (yesterday as I write). This 258 page document has already been attacked by many experts in the fields of knowledge that it claims to have summarised. Here, rather than add to these critiques directly, I want to take up the idea of the report as a political manifesto, to try to more precisely identify what its authors are seeking to do. For this is a text that is seeking to make a landmark intervention in ‘a pivotal moment in our nation’s race debate.'(9)

Now, the report does make a range of recommendations, and no doubt the authors would argue that these should be the heart of any analysis of what they have tried to do. Surely, if the recommendations are sound then all is well, whatever scruples one might have about the details of the research? But that question is deeply political, because, as the BMJ authors say, this document is really a manifesto: it brings together a wide range of social, educational and economic policies that it says would help with ‘Race and Ethnic Disparities’, but which largely reproduce completely standard general aims for a Conservative government. For example, rather than asking whether police should have stop and search powers, the report calls for body cameras to ‘Increase legitimacy and accountability of stop and search’ (recommendation 14). Recommendations 15-17 call for better support for children to plan their future careers, wider access to and information about apprenticeship schemes, and action to ‘Encourage innovation’. These are all pretty conventional policy approaches, packaged here as solutions to racial inequalities but not specifically built for them. One could equally imagine them being proposed as a solution to post-Brexit skills shortages, for example. One can agree or disagree with them, but they do not seem to have emerged from a deep analysis so much as been chosen off the rack.

Not all the recommendations are so bland. Recommendation 4, for example, on creating ‘partnerships between the police and communities’ has some rather more specific detail, which I am not qualified to comment on. Recommendation 8 on workplace fairness calls for organisations to move away from unconscious bias training and for the government to work with experts to produce better guidance on diversity. When it comes to specific policies, no doubt we will see further responses from expert individuals and organisations in the coming days. Given the responses already available, I doubt that many of these will go uncontested.

What I am more interested in here is how the report stitches together this rather grab-bag set of proposals into a general position on racial divisions in the UK. The conclusion claims that the aim was ‘to present a new race agenda for the country'(233). Thus, the text is a historical document, making specific claims about continuities and differences between the UK of 2021 and earlier times. This divide is, in fact, central to how the report develops, and it’s an element well worth shining a light on.

The Chair, Dr Tony Sewell, draws on Linton Kwesi Johnson in his introduction, to set up a generational account of racism in the UK. He contrasts the overt exclusions of the 1950s to the rebellions and running battles with police of the ’70s and ’80s. This spirit of rebellion he claims continued into the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2020. Then he announces that ‘this report speaks to a new period, which we have described as the era of “participation”.'(7) Here the distinction between past, present and future is not used for descriptive purposes, but as an accusation against those who would rebel against the racist structures of UK society. BLM protestors, notable for being a diverse group of people with broad interests in social justice, are here being presented as stuck in the past; they are not, Sewell is saying, a dynamic new global movement trying to break open the space for genuine racial justice, but instead a bunch of throwbacks to confrontations from Sewell’s youth.

He goes on to say that this new period can only be spoken of ‘if we acknowledge that the UK has fundamentally shifted since those periods in the past and has become a more open society.'(7) This is another peculiar rhetorical slippage: the era of participation exists simultaneously as something to aspire to and as a description of the present. If you want to reach it, you have to accept that at some loosely defined period within the last few decades (perhaps after the 1980s, perhaps since last summer, it is not at all clear) the UK became ‘open to all its communities.'(7) This last is caveated immediately by saying that ‘the door may only be half open to some’; the implication presumably is that in the new UK things are only ever half-open, never half-closed. In a boringly predictable move, we are told that the White working class also find themselves outside half open doors sometimes. It may be worth repeating, for the record, that campaigners for racial justice are simply not claiming that society oppresses nobody else or that some anti-working class systems affect people across racial divides, but that systems of structural racism act against People of Colour in the UK.

Sewell’s account of his era of participation sheds light on a strange sentence earlier in his foreword: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.'(6) He claims that this openness is shown by the data, although throughout the report as a whole there is a confusion between whether things are actually fair and open in the UK or whether they are simply better than they were in the past. In any fight for justice, one must surely keep these things clearly separated: if you are to punch me, I would rather you do it without knuckle dusters, but we should not celebrate the UK taking off its knuckledusters as sufficient amends either for people currently being punched or for those already punched.

The reason ‘historic’ racism ‘haunts’ its victims is that Sewell’s definition of history is what most people think of as the very recent past: he is claiming that people should let go of racism they have themselves lived through, all on the basis of carefully choreographed data that he says shows that racism is much reduced in the UK. He never even goes as far as saying that it is fully ended, but is telling People of Colour that they ought to get over it if they want race relations to improve. This is never quite delivered as a threat, but one can easily imagine it as one without changing anything about Sewell’s core argument.

History is at the heart of how Sewell imagines the UK and its various ethnic communities, as shown by the longest paragraph in his foreword, in which he discusses a new ‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource. Apparently this is a response to ‘negative calls for “decolonising” the curriculum.'(8) Whereas the recent past has been dismissed as a period of rebellion Britain can now move beyond, here Sewell suggests that colonial history ought to be recovered so that it can be reclaimed by all children. Those of us calling for decolonising the curriculum actually would like to see the history of the British Empire taught well, but by labelling such moves ‘negative’, what kind of allegiance is Sewell claiming? Surely to decolonise is only negative if you are a supporter of empire, a position openly claimed by many on the right in British politics, but surely not something that is obvious to the majority of people in the country (or indeed the rest of the world). To seek to understand ‘how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities’ as if economic exploitation delivered through violent oppression was not the central point of colonial rule is to adopt a dangerous kind of false innocence. To do so in a text that claims to have discovered a UK that is almost free of racism must make the reader wonder how many of these conclusions could simply have been written up without any investigation at all, so little grounding do they have any kind of reality.

This report is actually far more closely bound up with colonialism than its authors would likely admit. By treating persistent racism in society as a problem that can be solved by goodwill from individuals rather than through determined structural measures to bring down the historic apparatus of a British state that was built more to run the empire than to govern Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it carries out a vast exercise of victim blaming and gaslighting. Sewell would have us believe that racism exists more in the minds of the oppressed than in the actions of those with power, and he seeks to dismantle the intersectional alliances that have fought against racism in the UK. BAME, a fraught term standing for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, may well be less useful than some existing alternatives such as People of Colour. But the point of such a term is to quickly identify and bring together people historically held at the bottom of the racial hierarchies that structure British society; the report claims that this name lumps together groups of people who are unified only be not being White. This is factually accurate, and of course there are many differences between groups, but racism also puts these groups into one category, through exclusion and oppression.

I have focused on Sewell’s foreword for its value as an indication of the dominant ideology currently running the UK. This claims that whatever forces of oppression may have dominated past societies have now been largely ended, and that the only remaining obstacle to true equality of opportunity (the only kind of equality that these people lay claim to) can now be achieved if only the victims get over themselves and learn the ways of the victors. It draws a hard line between today and the recent past, as if those who grew up in poverty, excluded from large parts of the public sphere and damaged through the education and health systems can simply take off these wounds like an old set of clothes and become raceless Britons. It is easy to think of examples of similar arguments applied to women, disabled people, members of LGBTQI+ communities, immigrants, Travellers and Gypsies, and so on. If you didn’t have a chair when the societal music stopped, that was probably your fault and no one who has a chair need do anything, or even feel bad about it. The world is almost perfect, and noticing that it is not perfect is an affront to its near perfection.

One further note on the question of history in all this. Sewell reproduces a common myth that somehow the history of race in the UK only extends back as far as postwar immigration from decolonising countries. This not only treats the empire as some separate space that played no part in the making of the UK, surely false in itself, but also feeds a pernicious vision of a White Europe only recently entered by outsiders of other races. This is simply an illusion. For example the Roman Empire, itself part of foundational ideas of European exceptionalism, was deeply multicultural and some of the first colonists in Britain were likely from the Middle East and North Africa. Go deep enough back, and we are all descended from just a handful of people in Africa. To set up Britain or Europe as once White places is to contribute to a discourse that is already steeped in racial ideas from nineteenth century colonialists. Any decolonised curriculum will have to find new ways of bringing these human stories of movement, difference, conflict and hybridity together, but whereas Sewell apparently thinks this would be negative, I for one would think this a most exciting development in our sense of who we are and what we could be.