Who are you, and what do you do?
I'm Ben Wurgaft. I'm a writer and historian, and currently a Visiting Scholar in Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My work reflects a diverse spread of interests: my doctoral education was in European intellectual history, and my first book in that field is about philosophy, publicness, and the figure of “the intellectual” in the mid-twentieth century. But I’ve also written on food and culture since about 2001, contributing essays to journals and magazines like Gastronomica and Meatpaper, and I sometimes speak at conferences on food, specialty coffee, and the like.
During my first postdoctoral fellowship, at the New School for Social Research, I became very interested in the history and anthropology of science, and my next book is about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food; this book draws on about four years of ethnographic research, conducted beginning when I was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at MIT. So you could say my tasks are reading, writing, observing with eyes, ears, nose and mouth, interviewing, and thinking.
What hardware do you use?
I write on a late 2011 MacBook Pro with a 13” monitor. It’s usually connected to a Dell 24” external monitor, with the laptop sitting on a Griffin iCurve stand so old (perhaps 2007) that the sticky pads have become unsticky. What now keeps the laptop from sliding off the stand and smashing, are the duct-taped halves of the cork from a 2016 bottle of Donkey and Goat Winery’s Lily’s Pet Nat, which is a really delicious natural wine I drank with a few friends on a farm one late summer evening. Corks from other wines are likely to work just as well, but I recommend this one. The stand keeps my laptop at eye level and I normally keep documents open on both monitors at once, moving between them. Also at eye level is, usually, an open book held in a wire book holder, elevated on a stack of other books. Keeping everything at eye level helps me minimize neck strain. I type on an external Gold Touch split keyboard, which I adopted in grad school to avoid developing carpal tunnel, and it’s working so far. My wrists rest on foam. The foam is wrapped in fabric, and it rests on more foam in the shape of two triangles set at a very low angle; an ergonomics expert I knew in Oakland, California set this up for me in exchange for breakfast for her and her husband. The overall effect is to keep my arms and hands angled in around the elevated split keyboard, a little bit like I’m doing Qi Gong exercises. An Apple Magic Trackpad sometimes occupies my right hand. I have a pair of external speakers for music, about which, more below. I also use an early 2014 iPad for reading PDFs, light Internet browsing, and some writing, although my hands are too large for comfortable typing on most portable device keyboards. The iPad probably plays as much music and displays as many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation as it does PDFs of journal articles.
I write in cafes a fair amount, and bring my laptop (sans external gear) when I do, but I also like to write in notebooks when traveling or doing fieldwork. They also come in handy when I’m at home and want to see if pen and ink can inspire thoughts the keyboard can’t. I have quite a few Muji notebooks (small, black, lined, but also some unlined, for drawing freehand), to the point where I need a new strategy for organizing them; I also like the size and feel of Field Notes journals, as well as moleskins. A good notebook is one that can lie flat, opened, on its own. I write with Muji pens, usually of the .38 size but also sometimes the .5s, .7s, and now the .25. I do own some more expensive pens from Itoya, but my Muji pens are a desert island necessity. About bags: when I’m on foot my day bag is a North Face backpack, a 2006 model called the Slingshot, and while I’m not an especial fan of the company, I’m impressed by the bag’s longevity, and by the fact that when the seams ripped (too many heavily packed trips) the company was willing to patch the bag and send it back to me gratis. I plan to upgrade to the Tom Bihn Synapse 25 fairly soon. When I’m on my bike, which is as often as possible, I carry everything in a 2001 Baileyworks Super Pro courier bag (size L), which was originally hunter orange but which has faded over seventeen years to the color of certain west coast sunsets. I love this bag and recommend Baileyworks bags to anyone who rides. In general, I like bags that last a long time (10+ years), get better with use, and that are not overdesigned – so not too many straps or doohickeys for specialized tasks that I may never perform. When it comes to bags and other bigger-ticket items I’m willing to pay more for items that were made by craftspeople who receive a respectful salary, either in the U.S. or abroad. The material conditions of my labor are by and large positive, and I wish that could be true for everyone who makes the tools I use.
If I’m conducting interviews I either use my iPhone 7 Plus (whose camera is more than adequate for my less-than-pro food photography needs) or a Tascam DR-05 voice recorder, whose sound quality was much better than my old iPhone 5, but is not necessarily better than my iPhone 7. My best recent technology decision was to leave all social media off of my iPhone, and I also find that the large form factor of the iPhone 7 Plus leads me to use the phone less often – because it’s clunky – and this is a blessing.
The human body is not exactly hardware, and the things we do with it are not exactly software, but it’s worth saying that the work-hours I log are supported by exercise of various kinds. The key to my writing practice isn’t my ergonomic setup but, rather, hours of yoga, hiking, swimming, running, and cycling. I’m very lucky that my life and body currently support this routine, because I know how much my work would suffer without it. I try to log short periods of desk time (45min-2 hours) interrupted by activity – a run, some yoga practice, a bike ride, or a stroll to the kitchen to make coffee or tea. This may seem inefficient, but it is the opposite; my time away from the computer is when things crystallize, and then I return and write them down. About coffee: because I need my coffee “massaged” (as a friend put it) I have massage gear: I heat water in a Breville electric kettle, pour it into a Hario gooseneck kettle, and then use this to pour the water (I’m skipping a few steps here) over coffee weighed on an electric scale and ground in a Capresso burr grinder. This coffee sits in a filter in a clever dripper, either one with a pressure plate at its base or with a mechanical lever system. I have a wire travel coffee dripper, and filters that travel with me if I think there won’t be good coffee on the road.
I use Passport external hard drives to back everything up, because I have a cumulative mistrust of cloud storage.
And what software?
Here my old-fashioned tendencies, and failure to learn new things, show themselves. I still use Word 2008 for my daily word processing, even though it is full of distracting panels and options I don’t use. I listen to music on iTunes, despite its myriad frustrations. I browse the Internet with Firefox. And I make very little use of apps on my phone or iPad (except for Merlin Bird ID, produced by ornithologists at Cornell, to identify birds) largely because my love of learning new things doesn’t seem to extend to technological tools.
I have writing methods that mimic the functions of software, though. One of them I copied from John McPhee, one of my major inspirations in nonfiction writing. When I’m trying to compose, I write down all the units of research or thinking for the writing project in question (facts, anecdotes, stories, theoretical claims) on index cards or other pieces of paper. These I place in separate envelopes, each marked with a major organizational element — perhaps a chapter — of the work in question. This means that when I want to work on a chapter, I open its envelope and look at the contents, forgetting about everything else. I spread them out on a table and move them around, and allow structure to emerge. Or is this hardware? It’s paper, anyway.
I wrote my first books to the music of The Tallis Scholars, Zoe Keating, Brian Eno, and Roomful of Teeth (especially Caroline Shaw’s Partita for EightVoices). I listen to a lot of ambient and contemporary composed music while I write.
What would be your dream setup?
My modest dream is that my current gear lasts me a few more years, because personal electronics have a terrible environmental footprint and entail terrible labor practices. I try to keep my stuff running for as long as possible, and to repair rather than replace. I’d also like better writing software than Word, better music-listening software than iTunes (wouldn’t we all?), and a well-lit office space with a few friendly plants, with the aforementioned coffee massage equipment nearby. I plan to adopt a setup in which different functions are disaggregated from my laptop so that I listen to music on a stereo and treat the computer as a word processor only, while writing. It would be nice if my phone were an “old-fashioned” cell phone rather than a smart phone, but I travel a fair amount and find the smart phone useful.
But overall, the most important tools for my work are intangible and, in a sense, intimate: a reasonably good mood, minimal emotional distraction, energy, and a rested and exercised body. And, of course, coffee.