Helen Shewolfe Tseng


Helen Shewolfe Tseng

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Helen Shewolfe Tseng, and I am an artist, designer, and weird wolf witch. I co-host Astral Projection Radio Hour on BFF.fm with my friend Melissa, who I am also currently writing a book with.

What hardware do you use?

I split my time between working from home and traveling between various clients and collaborators, so having a minimal, lightweight setup is my main concern. I use a 13" Macbook Pro. I primarily draw with a Magic Mouse — I love that they're wireless and ultra-portable, and I've attempted various Wacom products but have always immediately hated all of the extra stuff you have to carry and plug in. I have a pink iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for sketching, but I still use pen and paper a ton — usually Muji recycled notebooks, Microns, Graph Gear 500 drafting pencils, Le Pens. I take photos and scan things with my iPhone 6S, which has one of my FUCK TRUMP cross stickers on it; strangers like to comment on it and I'll usually give them a sticker if they agree. And I always have headphones handy for music, podcasts, and signaling to people that I want to be left alone.

I keep a small home altar with things like candles, crystals, palo santo, sage, tarot cards, a coyote jawbone. There's a smoky occult supply den in San Francisco where I get these incense powders that are uncannily powerful for manifesting — be careful what you witch for. I like to start each day with a simple grounding ritual: burning something, drawing a tarot card, setting intentions, and visualizing my ego being brutally laid to rest.

And what software?

99% of the time, I'm making something in Illustrator. I make books and zines in InDesign and pixel art in Photoshop. I use Google Drive for writing, collaboration, bookkeeping, research, mood boards, presentations, radio notes, and Dropbox for syncing and sharing files. Spotify for music and collaborative playlists for my radio show. Signal for top secret group texts, e.g. one with my friends Jenny Odell and Joe Veix that's mostly animal memes and weird internet detritus. I recently traded the New York Times crossword app for Memrise, a language-learning app, for when I want nothing more than to idly paw at my phone and be rewarded with pleasing sound effects. But my softest pal is my log-shaped cat who blobs around my apartment absorbing my excess anxiety. I love you, Roo!

What would be your dream setup?

Somewhere tucked away in the folds of spacetime, there is a parallel dimension where my work can be conjured into existence via soothing activities such as wandering through otherworldly landscapes, taking extremely long showers, howling into the void, or allowing my cat to lie across my keyboard for as long as she pleases while I attend to my other needs.


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Joe Grand


Joe Grand

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Joe Grand, aka Kingpin. I'm a computer engineer, hardware hacker, product designer, teacher, advisor, runner, daddy, honorary doctor, TV host, member of legendary hacker group L0pht Heavy Industries, and the proprietor of Grand Idea Studio.

Most of my life revolves around creating, exploring, and manipulating electronic systems. I specialize in the reverse engineering and security analysis of hardware products and enjoy teaching others about how products can be forced into doing things they weren't designed to do. I also enjoy inventing my own products to share with the world, sometimes useful, practical things and sometimes ridiculous, goofy things, depending on my mood.

What hardware do you use?

My main machine is a 15" MacBook Pro. I'm often on the move, sharing my physical location between my lab, house, hotels, and classrooms. I have an aversion to intentionally storing my data on other people's computers ("the cloud"), so I've traded the power of a desktop machine for the portability of a laptop and the convenience of having access to everything I need no matter where I am.

My primary analysis tool is the Agilent DSO7054A digital storage oscilloscope. Nothing beats being able to see what electrical signals are actually doing at a given point in time, especially if you're trying to figure out how a system is operating or why it isn't. For listening in on and decoding communications between components or subsystems within a product, I use a Saleae Logic Pro 8 logic analyzer. My Fluke 287 multimeter and HP E3630A triple-output DC power supply are also constant companions.

At my workbench, I use a Metcal MX-500P soldering system and Vision Engineering Mantis Elite stereo inspection microscope. For rework and parts scavenging, I'll choose between a Weller WHA900 hot air station, Hakko FR-300 desoldering tool, or Chip Quik SMD removal alloy, depending on the target component's package type and location. For extracting data from and programming data into microcontrollers and memory devices, I rely on my Xeltek SuperPro 501S universal device programmer.

For hacking on and exploring embedded systems, I use a variety of electronic modules and platforms like the Propeller, BASIC Stamp, Arduino, and BeagleBone. I also use a whole bunch of tools built by hackers for hackers including the JTAGulator, Bus Pirate, Bus Blaster, ChipWhisperer, and HackRF One.

For rapid prototyping and desktop manufacturing, I employ two main tools: A T- Tech QuickCircuit 5000 PCB prototyping system for creating circuit boards and a MakerBot Thing-o-Matic for 3D printing of project enclosures and tchotchkes.

And what software?

My primary operating system is macOS and I use the standard complement of provided applications, most often Mail, Keynote, Pages, Numbers, and TextEdit. I like staying in the native environment as much as possible, but use VMware Fusion to run Windows and Ubuntu when I need a sandbox to play in or to work with engineering software not supported by macOS.

I'm the most efficient when I focus on one task at a time, so I use Things to keep my to-do lists in order and to help plan my day.

Even though I generally work alone, there's something to be said for human interaction. Colloquy for IRC keeps me sane and in touch with many of my friends.

For schematic capture and circuit board layout, I use Altium Designer. I designed my first professional circuit board with Protel EasyTrax for DOS in 1996 and have followed the progression of the tool since then.

For version control and dealing with Git repositories, I use SourceTree coupled with Beyond Compare.

Depending on what I'm currently working on, I'll use other software tools like Microchip MPLAB IDE with XC8, CodeWarrior, Quartus Prime, OpenOCD, gdb, and/or IDA.

For video demonstrations of projects and products, I film with my iPhone 4 and edit with iMovie. I'm notoriously bad at video production and tend to be more concerned that the information gets conveyed properly than how good it ends up looking.

What would be your dream setup?

I've always wanted to have some sort of underground secret laboratory. I'm completely happy with the resources I have above ground, but a subterranean lair would be awesome.


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Nikki Lee


Nikki Lee

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Nikki. I'm a product manager and product strategist, which seems to mean that I spend most of my time talking to people.

I'm currently at 18F, a digital services consultancy that works with federal agencies to successfully deliver efficient, easy-to-use digital services. I bounce between coaching agency staff on product management, management and organization consulting, and building software — whatever it takes to get my clients unstuck. At my last job, I was a PM at Microsoft, where I worked on Windows Ink. I also own a lot of Microsoft peripherals, because I had a sweet employee discount when I worked there.

I also do academic research, mostly focused on self-tracking. Because I'm a nerd.

Sometimes I write essays and build web things. Other times I play video games.

I'm sorry this is so many words. If you tweet at me I'll send you a cat picture to apologize.

What hardware do you use?

A sketch of a MacBook Pro, iPhone 6, ThinkPad Yoga, Google Pixel, a standing desk with a Dell XPS 8500 next to it, and Nikki's peripherals: personal and work keyboard/mouse setups, game controller, and an array of headphones.

Computers

At work I use a 13" MacBook Pro (pre Touch Bar) and iPhone 6. They have a certain amount of techie cred, but I resent both of these devices, and many of my coworkers have heard a variety of rants about the core interaction models of iOS and OS X. I love the virtual desktops functionality in OS X, but that's basically the only design choice I prefer to Windows.

We also have a bunch of Thunderbolt displays in our office. They're nice for extra real estate and the integrated cameras in the display are better positioned for video calls.

In my personal life, I spend most of my time on my Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga. The pen that came with this computer isn't great, so I scavenged a pen from an old X220T — it's a better size for my hands and actually has an eraser on it. Of course, there's no integrated storage for it, so I also acquired a Surface Pen Loop and stuck it on the side of my laptop. Whatever works, right?

I also have a desktop (a Dell XPS 8500), which I mostly use for gaming and listening to music. It's not particularly noteworthy in any direction.

My main phone is my Google Pixel, which I have been really impressed with. The camera is excellent, the fingerprint reader has been integrated brilliantly, and it's survived an embarrassing number of falls with only superficial damage.

Keyboards & mice

At work I use a Kinesis Freestyle2 keyboard and the most normal looking ergonomic mouse that was in the GSA catalog.

At home I use a Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and a Logitech M705 mouse.

Audio & video

My desktop is where my Denon AH-D7000s live, because it has an actual dedicated sound card. I received these headphones as a college graduation present, and I have gotten massive mileage out of them. They're by far my favorite.

When I'm lounging on the couch, I'll grab my SteelSeries Siberia V3 headphones. I don't worry about dropping them, banging them up, tweaking the cords, or spilling water on them, and they don't need an amp or sound card.

I almost always have my Denon AH-C50MASR earbuds with me when I leave the house. They're also my go-to for hopping on video calls or listening to music at work. Sometimes I'll grab my G-Cord earbuds if I need to jump on a call quickly, but they aren't great for listening to music. I also keep a pair of Windows branded Skullcandy Hesh 2 Wireless Headphones in my locker at work. They were our ship gift when Windows 10 launched, which sparked a series of rumors that we were all going to get moved from personal offices to an open work space.

I also get good mileage out of my JLab Epic2 wireless sport earbuds (for the gym) and my DUBS earplugs (for concerts and riding on BART).

Most video calls happen on my laptops, which have integrated webcams, but I also have a Lifecam Cinema on my desktop, just in case.

I, uh, seem to own a lot of headphones. I need to think about this.

Gaming

I snagged an Xbox Elite controller as a goodbye to Microsoft. It's fantastic, and I have no regrets about buying it. I also have a handful of standard Xbox One controllers for co-op gaming sessions with friends. They come in handy when I persuade people to have an office game night.

Pretty all of my gaming is on my PC, but I also have a New Nintendo 3DS XL, which is particularly great for travel. It is also by far the worst named product I have ever owned. Seriously Nintendo, what gives?

And what software?

Work

My job is all about communication, so I spend most of my time in Slack and the G Suite. Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides are all excellent collaboration tools, and I've learned how to make Google Slides about 75% as good as PowerPoint (the animations library and drawing tools are still far inferior, but the real-time collaboration almost makes up for it). Every now and then I'll download something into Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to share with a client. I don't usually do this because all of our branded templates document and slide templates are Google-first.

I also spend a fair amount of time whiteboarding and sticky noting in Mural. Their UX design isn't great, but their core value proposition is unmatched.

Video calls are a daily challenge. The Mac audio and video stack doesn't play well with Google Chrome and Hangouts, so I (like many of my coworkers) have a private appear.in room as a backup. We also use Zoom for organization-wide and team meetings and Adobe Connect when we're meeting with clients who can't access our other video calling tools. Federal and state agency software policies vary a lot, and it's important to have a lot of backup options so that we can still talk to them face-to-face. It's still better than traveling every week, though. I did that for a while and it really started to mess with my head.

All of our code goes on GitHub. Open source software and transparency are one of 18F's core values, and GitHub makes it really easy for us to live that value without disrupting our core workflows. I don't usually write code at work, but I occasionally have reason to crack open Sublime Text.

Task management mostly happens in Trello, although my experience is that people are pretty bad at checking task boards regularly unless the team has a strict stand up process. GitHub Issues really seem to be the most reliable thing besides people individually writing down and remembering their own tasks.

Research

My research team mostly uses Google Docs and Google Sheets to process data. We've also used Saturate for qualitative coding, which makes it really easy to divide work across many coders.

Our data collection usually depends on survey tools (our latest project used Google Forms) or custom built software.

Final papers are pretty much always written in Microsoft Word, because that's what conferences have standardized around. We've also gotten in the habit of publishing plain language writeups of our research on Medium. I'm not sure anybody reads them, but they're available. We tried.

Side projects

I can barely function without music. I pretty much always have Google Play Music running in the background while I work. They won my loyalty by offering me a forever discount, which is a pretty good incentive.

Plumbago is great for sketching out concepts, outlining essays, and thinking through things. Basically anything you would do with a paper notebook. I also use the Windows Ink Sketchpad as a scratch pad to work through problems and make quick doodles and diagrams. It also makes me feel good about myself, because it was one of the features I pitched, designed, and shipped. And it's actually useful!

Once I'm done outlining, I mostly write my essays directly in Medium's text editor. Nothing fancy there. I get all the images for my essays on Flickr (searching across Creative Commons licensed images, of course).

When I'm coding, I generally use Sublime Text (I even paid for a license!) and LiveReload. Most of my stuff is just simple HMTL/CSS/JavaScript, with jQuery to make DOM object manipulation less annoying. On the occasions when I do write backend code, I use Ruby on Rails and deploy my apps using Heroku. And of course, I keep everything on GitHub like a good tech worker should.

Sometimes I draw. I haven't found an art program that I really love yet, but Autodesk SketchBook is all right. I wish their pen and touch interaction model was handled better, and don't love the brush options they offer. Bamboo Paper and Bamboo Page (both by Wacom) have some really nice inking effects, especially their watercolor markers, but the apps are too limited for really good drawing. I'm considering trying to learn how to make Photoshop do what I want, but it's more likely that I'll just keep bouncing back to physical media. A sketchbook, pencil, and set of Copic sketching grays already gets me just about everything I want.

Gaming

Almost all of my PC games are managed via Steam.

When I stream, I use OBS Studio to capture and stream to Twitch. I'm not a very dedicated streamer, so I don't need any other plugins.

What would be your dream setup?

I would love to use a Surface Pro at work. In my time at Microsoft I used a Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4, and Surface Book, and they were all excellent devices for the type of work I do.

They're lightweight, which was great when I was constantly running between meetings, and would be great now that I travel a lot. Having a pen would be killer for quickly explaining things to partners, especially when I'm on site in their offices (not all of them have whiteboards readily available). Having a touch display would be nice, too. I didn't need a mouse when I was using Surface devices because I didn't have to use the trackpad (which is rough on my wrist) for everything.

I'd love to have better collaborative whiteboarding and drawing software. People spend so much time describing in words what can be communicated much more quickly in sketches. I mostly work with folks who aren't in the same place as me, so we can't just grab a whiteboard and share ideas, which is really frustrating. If I had to guess, I'd say that the OneNote team is going to be the first to launch a really great solution to this problem.

An annotated photograph of a grey cat lying on a lighter grey blanket that says thanks for reading.


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Mike Lazer-Walker


Mike Lazer-Walker

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Mike Lazer-Walker (yes, that's my real name!). I make installation art and experimental games that ask people to interact with everyday objects in unexpected and playful new ways. A lot of my work involves vintage technology, such as fully-functional USB telegraph keys and a game played on a 90-year-old telephone switchboard. Other projects revolve more around recontextualizing familiar objects and spaces, such as a generative poetry walk in San Francisco's Fort Mason and a game where you sext with a robot.

Aside from my art practice, I build software tools. I care a lot about making sure that we're building technology and providing tools that actively enable and empower people to improve themselves. This tends to manifest itself in open-source software tools to help other programmers be more productive (my day job is building iOS and web apps), "quantified self"-style tools mostly built for my own purposes, and educational projects to help others teach themselves new skills. I've spent a lot of time in spaces designed to foster self-driven creative learning, such as the MIT Media Lab (where I was a researcher with the now-defunct Playful Systems group) and the Recurse Center.

What hardware do you use?

My main computer is a 12" MacBook. It still feels weird using a computer with a lower GeekBench score than my phone, but I travel a lot and prefer to work out of coffee shops, so it's hard to put a price on having a laptop light enough I can legitimately forget it's in my bag. I'll occasionally augment it with my beefy home-built gaming PC at home or a Linux virtual box from DigitalOcean if I need to do something more computationally intensive. It's usually paired with my AirPods, which I adore.

As I said, I mostly work out of coffee shops, but working at home lets me use my beloved Unicomp Model M buckling-spring mechanical keyboard and Razor DeathAdder gaming mouse. For hardware work, I have a lovely Weller WES51 soldering iron, plus a bunch of other much more forgettable tools. For quick prototyping work, I have a Monoprice MAKER SELECT v2 3D printer. It's pretty junky, but having a 3D printer that I paid less than $200 for makes me feel like I'm living in a William Gibson novel. I mostly use it for rapid prototyping; anything that needs a higher-quality print gets sent to Shapeways.

Most of my screen time is frankly spent on my iPhone 6S Plus. I also use my iPad (an iPad Air 2), mostly for things like reading and Netflix and doing the NY Times crossword, and an Apple Watch mostly for fitness tracking and NFC payments. Building iOS apps for a living means I'm pretty enmeshed in the Apple ecosystem.

I take a lot of freehand notes, typically using Moleskine notebooks (hardcover, paperback-sized, and with grid rule, please) and Pilot Vpen disposable fountain pens. They give me the tactile enjoyment of fountain pens without having to feel bad about losing them or getting sucked into the rabbithole of yet another time-consuming and pricey hobby.

And what software?

For writing code: if I'm not writing native iOS apps in Xcode, you can usually find me in Visual Studio Code. Making games that use weird custom physical interfaces, I tend to write mostly cross-platform ES6 or TypeScript code that can run anywhere from a Raspberry Pi as part of a physical installation to an iOS app that wraps the shared JS game logic in a native Swift UI wrapper (which is incredibly useful for playtesting purposes). It's incredibly powerful to be able to write a single game engine that can run anywhere from a Unix shell to an iPad to a physical 90-year-old telephone switchboard.

I use Sketch and Pixelmator for most visual-related work. 3D CAD mostly happens in Onshape, which runs delightfully on an iPad. I do most other things related to software development in a terminal, where I use zsh with oh-my-zsh as my shell.

My task management is handled by a combination of OmniFocus and Trello, plus Habitica for helping to train me to be a better human being. Quick notes for anything I'm working on inevitably get stored in nvAlt, using Simplenote to sync with the cloud and use from my phone. Other stuff that doesn't live there or on my public GitHub gets stored in Sync, a lovely Dropbox clone that stores my data using zero-knowledge encryption on Canadian soil.

I try to do as much as possible from my phone and tablet rather than my laptop. Looking at the front page of my phone: Foursquare is my gold standard for finding places to eat in new cities while traveling. Fantastical is my calendar of choice. I use 1password for password management, and Instapaper and Overcast to keep track of things to read and listen to. Not to toot my own horn, but one of my most frequently-used apps is Bike NYC, a minimalist app I built for NYC's bike share program.

Along with Bike NYC, a lot of the other apps I use frequently are ones I've built myself. Another good example is Cortado, a location-aware caffeine tracker I use to help me see the effect caffeine has on my well-being. I wish it were less time-intensive and easier for people who aren't professional software developers to build their own software; there's something really empowering about being able to build a custom tool to scratch your own precise itch.

I spend more time than I should playing videogames (it's "professional research", I swear). Although I love my Nintendo Switch, most of my gaming time is spent on my phone or tablet. I maintain a list of my favorite mobile games.

What would be your dream setup?

I can point to specific pieces of hardware I'd like — an iPad Pro so I can use an Apple Pencil with Onshape and drawing software! One of the new beefier 12" MacBooks! A home PCB mill like an Othermill so I can prototype PCBs without the turnaround time of mail services like OSH Park! — but changes to my tools at that level are just incremental improvements.

What's more frustrating to me is having to balance the interesting work with the work that pays the bills, and spending most of my time working on solo projects rather than collaborating with others. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd find myself in an environment where I'm surrounded by other cool creative people to bounce ideas off of, collaborate with, and appreciate each other's work, and where we somehow don't have to worry about making ends meet. Preferably still in an urban center with good bikeability and access to good coffee and beer.


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John Leavitt


John Leavitt

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm John Leavitt, a writer, cartoonist and activist.

What hardware do you use?

I am embarrassingly analog. Most of my art is done on board or watercolor, using pilot pens and brushes and a child's watercolor set I got five years ago. The most importent tool I have is a Llghtbox, so I can pencil, ink, and paint things in separate sheets of paper and then recombine them digitally. I use an aging Wacom tablet and equally ancient copy of Photoshop to touch things up later. Having everything scanned separately allows for a lot more freedom to edit.

I use a Brother printer/scanner and it's the only one that hasn't crapped out on me on the regular.

For writing, I need a real keyboard, so I have a Lenovo laptop used exclusively for writing, video editing, and playing Civilization. If I get stuck on something I'll write things in longhand, on yellow legal pads, until I get some flow back.

As for activism, most of that is signs and banners, and that still requires brushes and glue and boards and maybe some glitter. The revolution requires arts and crafts, after all.

And what software?

Word/Google Docs for writing, Photoshop for editing, Avid Studio for video editing, and Inkscape for anything vector related.

What would be your dream setup?

Mostly what I have, but more of it. A standing Lightbox/desk setup would be great, as would a large format scanner and a real dedicated crafting area. A portable keyboard as real and solid as a real keyboard would be freeing (I type too fast for even the best virtual keyboards) but since I work from home, the ideal would be my own room where I can close the door and shut myself in or shut work out.


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Lex Gill


Lex Gill

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hello! I'm a research fellow at the Citizen Lab and a legal researcher at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Between these two roles I work on all kinds of stuff — from encryption policy and national security to policing, prisons and borders. My favourite legal problems are messy, high-stakes, and interdisciplinary.

Both organizations are based in Toronto, but I mostly live and work in Montreal. It's still a little gritty, and intensely creative — queer and quirky and brave. No matter how much I travel, being a Montrealer is a big part of my setup.

What hardware do you use?

I have a early 2016 12" MacBook (space grey!) and an iPhone 6S (gold!).

I don't carry confidential data or devices internationally, so instead of the glorious new MacBook, I brought a (wiped) 2013 MacBook Air on a recent trip to Tokyo. That machine is on its last legs — it's about 50% spinning beach ball and keys are starting to fall out of the board like baby teeth — which means I'm in the market for a new travel Chromebook.

I can't find an e-reader I like, so I do a lot of long-form reading on this really cool technology called paper which is made from mashed up trees. I also still do a surprising amount of writing and drawing by hand — I'm partial to Rhodia dot pads and recently fell in love with the feel of these double-ended pens from MUJI. I was also gifted a Space Pen last year from my partner, which — if you've ever had a pen explode on a plane, you'll know — is a godsend for travel.

I have an Apple Watch 2, which I use pretty much exclusively as a fitness tracker (I'd never get anything done if I enabled other notifications). I get everywhere on a cheap and reliable fixed gear bike and have a set of rainbow Monkeylectric lights which are an endless source of joy for small children and drunk local partygoers alike.

And what software?

I'm a Todoist power user. It's beautiful, reliable, and intuitive — just about everything I plan to do or want to remember gets catalogued there somehow. I'm not a very good multi-tasker (apparently few people are) so it helps free up my working memory.

My communications setup sometimes feels a little bit like this XKCD comic. Privacy and security are important to me — both because of the nature of my work and because of my values — but it can be tricky getting everyone you love on the same channel. I've pared it down in recent months, but I still use some combination of Signal, Semaphor, Tor Messenger (beta), Twitter and Slack every day. I like Jitsi for videoconferencing.

A lot of my day-to-day work involves quiet writing and legal research, but I can't seem to find a lightweight text editor I love. I spent my law school days using an idiosyncratic markup system with a custom script to convert notes written in Sublime Text into billion-page LaTeX documents. I've since graduated to Bear, which is a much more elegant solution (and lets you integrate sketches!). I still use Sublime sometimes, and I'm currently taking Standard Notes for a test run.

I support the Tor Project, and use Tor for as much of my browsing as I reasonably can.

What would be your dream setup?

I have almost superstitious ideas about how spaces change the way we think and work. I think being in the right environment can encourage people to be their best selves.

So for deep focus? A large desk in the wilderness — like something straight out of the Instagram dreamscapes of rich bohemian glampers. No clocks, endless coffee, soft grey skies and a big stack of books.

For collaborative work, I wish for — and this, I'm convinced, is the dream of every remote worker — an enormous kitchen table in a loft full of plants. A bucket at the door where people leave their phones and grab a pair of slippers. Natural light and open windows on cool, sunny autumn days. A fridge full of homemade snacks. All of the people I work with in one place.

Finally, most people don't realize that a lot of important legal sources are totally inaccessible: either behind (extremely expensive!) paywalls or tucked away in university libraries and courthouses. I'm lucky to have access to these kinds of sources, but projects like the Caselaw Access Project and CanLII are working to fix this problem for everyone. The law belongs to all of us — in my dream setup, it would be free for all of us too.


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David Lawrence Miller


David Lawrence Miller

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm David Lawrence Miller, and I work as an ecological statistician at various places (currently between the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation in Hobart, Tasmania and the University of St Andrews in Scotland). I spend a lot of time thinking about how to model where animals are in space and how we can use those models to count them better. Much of my time is spent doing modelling of whales, but I like to be fairly species-agnostic.

For fun I like to make weird things with computers, usually involving some kind of stochasticity. I've written a few Twitter bots, the most famous of which is @birdcolourbot which tweets the colours (as identified by humans) of various North American birds (a little write-up it got in NYT). I also wrote @transect575 which takes observer comments from survey data looking for whales, and builds haikus.

What hardware do you use?

I currently use a 2013 MacBook Air – it's the best computer I've ever bought. It seems to still be working fine, though I am dreading the next upgrade. I use a Nifty MiniDrive with a 128Gb SD card to store large things (music, movies, datasets) without having to cart around an external hard disk (get the fastest, largest card you can!). If I need to do "serious" computing, I send my jobs to a server called isbjørn (polar bear) in St Andrews with more cores/RAM than I can count.

I'm about 2m tall so most of my hardware is really about making using a computer comfortable.. At home I use the largest Dell monitor (propped up with some of my wife's economics textbooks) I could afford a few years ago and an Ikea height-adjustable desk with an Aeron for when I sit. I use a Kinesis Freestyle II keyboard; top tip is to get some grip tape to put on some of the letters so you can find your way round when you start using it. I also use a 3M EM500 vertical mouse, though avoid mousework as much as possible.

When I travel I take the keyboard and the Roost stand; both can fit in hand luggage fairly easily. I have a Tom Bihn Brain Cell vertical case for extra laptop protection (after an unfortunate overheating situation caused by a previous laptop turning itself on in my bag a few years ago).

I don't really care about mobile phones aside from their camera, eBird (for birding) and Tweetbot (for Twitter). I have an iPhone SE because it's pretty much the smallest functional phone I could find that has a good camera.

For mathematics, I tend to use a Lamy Studio extra fine point fountain pen (Lamy ink seems to be good), a couple of colours of Muji gell ballpoints and a large hardback Moleskine plain notebook (people who do maths on lined paper freak me out).

For bird watching I carry Monarch 3 8x42s and use a cheap adapter for the iPhone, which lets me take nice-ish photos. I think paper guides are still ahead of phone-based ones for now (aside from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Merlin app for North America).

Sony MDR-V6s are easily the best headphones I've ever owned. They are not good for walking around/travel but for sitting in a quiet office, they are perfect. I am regularly pleased by how good they sound and how comfortable they are for long periods (you can get replacement covers, which are much more comfortable than the faux-leather ones they come with).

And what software?

I spend 80% of my time in the terminal (iTerm2) and the rest in Thunderbird. vim is where most of my code/paper editing happens, when writing papers, I use Papers citation manager to quickly insert references (set up to pop-up search in any context with a double tap of ctrl) – this is the only thing that keeps me using that program but it saves a lot of time.

Almost all my programming is done in R. I write most of my analyses in R Markdown then convert to LaTeX/PDF/HTML as necessary.

Almost everything I do ends up in git, I use git-prompt to show the status of the working repo in my bash prompt.

Sitting in my menubar is Arq (backup), Caffeine (stops your Mac sleeping), 1Password and f.lux (set to pretty red all the time, for the sake of my eyes).

What would be your dream setup?

Something that's both small and rugged would be great — an indestructible MacBook Air 11" would be perfect. I haven't looked at non-Mac laptops in a while, but given Apple's increasing complications with cloud-based solutions, I'm thinking of going back to Linux (after 13 years on Mac). A more portable version of the Kinesis keyboard would be great too.

I'd love something better than Thunderbird to deal with e-mail, especially for large inboxes that does modern stuff like deferring mail — I've yet to find something open and usable.

I'm relatively happy with what I have at the moment software-wise. Turning the question on its head, I think my nightmare setup would involve having everything be cloud-based. I really value being offline and not having constant pinging of e-mail/twitter/etc. Most of my current setup involves asynchronous communication with the internet, and this suits me very well.


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Matt Lee


Matt Lee

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Matt Lee, aka mattl. I'm a filmmaker and free software hacker from the UK, but I have spent most of the last ten years in and around Boston, MA. I moved to the US in 2008 after making a short film about GNU and free software with Stephen Fry. For the last fifteen years or so, I've been working on the GNU operating system in various guises, and in the last eight of those years I started and worked on the GNU FM and (co-founded) GNU social projects. GNU FM is a bit like Last.fm, and the flagship site is Libre.fm and GNU social is a bit like Twitter I suppose. GNU social uses the OStatus protocol, which is also used by Mastodon to build a federated social network.

Previously I was the technical lead at Creative Commons for a number of years, and before that I worked at the Free Software Foundation for about five years. But I recently retired from the GNU Project to concentrate on my current passion project, which is film. My first feature film, Orang-U: An Ape Goes To College came out on July 8th, and is the first in a series of movies I'm making. Uniquely, my films are made with entirely free/open software, have proper paid actors in them and when we release them we give you all of the source materials too, so you can really remix and do something creative with the end product. It has taken a while to get here, but we're finally ready to show this to the world. And along the way, I wound up writing a novelization of the movie, so we're releasing that as well. It's all Creative Commons ShareAlike licensed, so even commercial use is okay. But no DRM, so we won't be appearing on Netflix anytime soon, which suits me.

And when I say we, it's basically myself and my co-writer Ryan Dougherty, plus some friends from the free software world.

What hardware do you use?

My main laptop these days is a Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition, kindly donated to me by GitLab. It has a 4K touch screen display, 16Gb of RAM and a half terabyte of SSD storage, as well as an awkwardly placed webcam. It's okay to type on, but I mostly have it connected to a Dell 4k monitor and a WASD mechanical keyboard in the office. I'm also lucky to have one of Dell's Project Sputnik developers as a friend of mine for support, if I ever need it. I also have a ThinkPad T440S, also with 16GB of RAM but a full terabyte of SSD.

The movies are filmed using a Canon XA10 camera, which I picked because it has XLR inputs. Sound is recorded using a Rode shotgun microphone or a Xoom H4N recorder. I have a shoebox full of USB hard disks, brand new SSDs and SD cards in various sizes from 32mb to 128gb too, just in case.

The box also contains all the Raspberry Pis and Firefox OS phones I'll never get around to doing anything with. I have a Google Pixel phone, which seems to lock up about once every two days, and a couple of Apple products that don't get used much at all, but it can be interesting to know what they're up to. I also have the final model of PowerBook G3 running Mac OS 9, so it's a bit of a screamer. I picked that up to attend the Web 1.0 Conference at MIT last year, and its still on the floor of my apartment. Oh, and there's a random $30 tower PC I picked up on eBay to run OPENSTEP too. I suppose I'm a bit of an operating system nut.

And what software?

Pretty much everything I've ever written down on a computer since the early 1990s has been in GNU Emacs. When writing scripts for the movies, I use a format called Fountain, which is essentially just Markdown. I usually don't even have the Fountain mode turned on in Emacs, but it can be useful to check things sometimes. I use a script called Textplay to turn the Fountain markup into HTML. I also use a tool called Pandoc for doing things like producing PDFs of books from Markdown. Everything is stored in both git and Dropbox — git for myself, Dropbox for non-hackers. I make a lot of notes on my phone, emailing them to myself and then turning those into folders for later projects.

Video editing is done entirely in Blender, which is by far the most stable video editing tool I've used on GNU/Linux. Titles and credits and things like that are made using GIMP and Inkscape, and then animated using Blender's more famous animation capabilities. I'd like to find an alternative to Audacity that doesn't lock up the sound on my computer too.

To support all these tools I run GNU/Linux on all my day to day computers — Ubuntu on the Dell for the better support for HiDPI displays in Unity, and Debian on the ThinkPad. Once GNOME has better support for HiDPI displays I will put Debian on the Dell, so I don't have to think too much about what I'm doing. My desktop needs are pretty basic — a browser, several terminals, GIMP/Inkscape or just Blender for when I'm editing.

What would be your dream setup?

My dream setup would be a super fast laptop with excellent build quality and a touchscreen. The Dell XPS comes pretty close. Maybe Apple will produce a decent MacBook Pro that can run GNU/Linux well, but I doubt it. I'll probably wind up building a new PC soon for rendering. I'm a little bewildered by the parts in my local Microcenter — I know I want a screamer, but I need to be careful to not buy a video card that requires proprietary drivers. I'd like to see better support for HiDPI displays in free software, and I'd like to see more people using Blender to edit video, so that Blender itself becomes better and gets more features for video editing and video editors. I'm very happy editing my own work right now, but if that ever changes, I can see it taking a little while to get someone else up to speed using Blender.

I think one way to make free software tools better for artists is to get more artists to use the tools we have currently, and then see what can be done to improve them later. But I am just very happy to have made a feature length movie using free tools. It gives me something to do between watching Law and Order SVU episodes and tweeting the CEO of T-Mobile


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Eileen Webb


Eileen Webb

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Eileen Webb and I'm a content strategist focused on structure and systems architecture. I like organizing content and making clever data models, and especially I like working with teams to figure out how to document and communicate that strategy and structure so that everyone can use it well. Practically speaking, I:

  • sit in front of a screen all day
  • read people's websites and internal documents
  • talk to team members about their frustrations and hopes and dreams
  • design better systems and processes so people's work lives are happier

My official job title is Director of Strategy and Livestock. I live on a small farm and raise poultry and lambs and pigs and rabbits. I cook a lot, raise a big garden, make some of my own clothes, and spend a lot of time hanging out in the woods.

What hardware do you use?

I have a MacBook Pro that's a few years old. The most taxing thing I do is join Google Hangouts (hey cooling fan heyyy), so I expect it to last me for a while longer. My partner and I have only a single iPhone between us, which people think is crazy, but there's not much cell signal up in our mountains so there's no reason to have two.

I got a Serger last year and it seriously upped my clothing game. It cuts and sews at the same time! Amazing.

I have a Passap Duomatic 80 knitting machine, passed down to me from my grandmother, and I use it to make a ton of sweaters and socks and other soft wooly things. It came to me many years ago, but it's got such a steep and inscrutable learning curve that until Ravelry took off, it sat in the barn collecting dust. Now I'm connected to hundreds of people around the world who have the same machine, and we share patterns and pitfalls and help each other figure out why the yarn keeps breaking in the middle of a row.

I swear by Premier electric fence netting for protecting all our animals. Technically a bobcat can jump right over a 42" fence (while carrying a full-grown turkey! ask me how I know) but most of the time it's enough of a deterrent to keep everyone safe.

Also I love having a window-mount bird feeder near my desk. I get visitors all day.

And what software?

In the summer my primary software is the hammock on my back deck. I've figured out a way to wedge my laptop securely between the sides, and it's a pretty great way to review spreadsheets.

Before this laptop I had a Linux desktop, and when I switched to the Mac I decided that I was just done with customizing and tweaking my setup. So mostly I use the default programs with their default settings: I like Pages and Numbers and Keynote, I use Gmail in the browser, I keep my desktop completely empty except for this anthropomorphic emmental that I upload as a custom emoji in every Slack I'm part of.

I use iA Writer for all my writing and note taking because I like how simple it is, and the way it formats Markdown. I use TextMate when I need to write code; I did take the time to customize the syntax highlighting to make the comments across all languages a calming pastel pink.

Whenever I need to buckle down and focus, I put on headphones and fire up Brain Wave. Supposedly it's adjusting my brain frequencies to be better focused and energized, or maybe it's just a Pavlovian association I've created between listening to that ambient sounds and getting good work done. It's at least 62% pseudo-science, but who cares?

What would be your dream setup?

It's buggy here, so I would love a screen porch. I should probably have a more ergonomic screen/keyboard rig, but to be honest I'd rather just spend less time typing than more time making it comfortable. I'd make good use of a tea station (boiling water, bar sink, etc) upstairs in my office, instead of having to trek downstairs to the kitchen like an animal. We really need a legit barn (instead of the collection of sheds and hutches we have for the livestock now), but I think that will have to wait for our next house. These are all extra luxuries, though. My life is good.


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