Laura DeGroot


Laura DeGroot

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Laura DeGroot. I'm a web developer, designer, thing-maker, and poet. I work at Format as a front end developer. I like making fun art about space and nature.

What hardware do you use?

For design and web development I use a 2014 15" MacBook Pro. When I'm using that computer as a TV, I usually write or look at Twitter with my 2014 11" MacBook Air. My phone is an iPhone 6. I recently traded a stranger 6 cans of beer in exchange for a Kindle – I've been reading way more than ever as a result! I just finished reading The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick.

And what software?

For development I use Atom to edit text, Hyper for the command line, and Slack integrations for deploys.

For design I use Sketch. It's a weird choice for creating anything that's going to be printed, but I have a licence from work and I've learned it the most recently! It works for me, I usually just make sure everything is tens of thousands of pixels in size before I try to have it printed – so far so good! To edit photos I use Affinity Photo – it's a great bit of software and the price works for me as someone who only edits images once in a while.

My favourite writing app is OmmWriter. It takes over your screen to minimize distractions, and has lots of cute features like a choice of background, music, and even keypress sound effects. I love the sound effect that makes every keypress sound like a rain drop, it motivates me to keep typing! When inspiration comes randomly, the Notes app on OS X and iOS is always in use.

What would be your dream setup?

I'm pretty happy with what I have! I've been thinking about finding a scanner so I can import some drawings and handwriting into Sketch. I don't have an external monitor at home, and that's something I'd like to change. Overall though, I'd enjoy less tech in my life – especially in my free time. Unfortunately it's very useful for accomplishing my creative goals πŸ™‚


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James Turnbull


James Turnbull

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hi! I'm James. I am an engineer and author. I love building products and teams.

I work as CTO at Empatico, a not-for-profit educational technology company. We connect elementary (primary) age students from different backgrounds and geographies with a focus on developing their curiosity about others and their communication and empathy skills.

Prior to that, I was the CTO at Kickstarter, the VP of Engineering at Venmo, and was an early employee at both Docker and Puppet. I've also built product and run teams in finance, telecommunications, biotech, gaming and technology companies.

I write technical books about topics in engineering, operations, and security. I've written ten books, including The Docker Book and The Terraform Book.

I'm originally from Melbourne in Australia but my partner and I have been living in the United States, most recently New York City, for a number of years now. I am deeply in love with the city. I love the subway, the noise, the people, and even the rats and the smell of stale garbage. πŸ™‚

What hardware do you use?

Day-to-day I use a 2016 Macbook Pro with Touchpad and my phone is a Google Pixel XL 5.5.

I do a little bit of gaming and I have a Windows-based Puget Systems PC that basically just runs Steam.

I read a lot and I am a huge fan of the Kindle as an e-reader. I have owned one of pretty much every Kindle model released and currently use a Kindle Oasis. The battery life makes it great for travel and the lighting and crispness of the screen make reading in low light – planes, bars, cafes, badly lit hotel rooms – super easy.

And what software?

My life runs out of a combination of G Suite, Postbox, Remember The Milk, 1Password, and Evernote.

I have multiple Chrome profiles for different purposes and usually have way too many tabs open at a time.

I also use way far too many communications tools. Seemingly like everyone in tech, I belong to more Slacks than I can manage, including being one of the owners of the NYC Tech Slack. I use Signal, Skype, Trillian to consolidate GTalk and Facebook (and checking my accounts in there I still have some Jabber accounts, ICQ, and AIM too), and AirText. I was an early Twitter user – my first tweet was something like "Huh. I don't get it." – and it's a platform I both like and loath, depending on the day.

I write every day, both code and prose, and I've used a number of editors over the years. Recently, I've settled on Visual Studio Code, Microsoft's open source code editor/IDE, which I use both as a text editor (my books are Markdown with a bit of LaTeX for higher level formatting and use Pandoc to turn them into formatted artifacts) and an IDE. Code has got vim bindings and excellent Git integration which, since most of what I write lives in GitHub, works out pretty well.

I can't escape the command line though and I use iTerm2 running fish and will often jump into vim on the command line for quick edits. I also use Weechat for the handful of remaining, fairly quiet, IRC channels I am still resident in.

What would be your dream setup?

In my old house in Melbourne, I used the master bedroom as an office. I bought a huge antique dining table for the center of the room and every wall had bookshelves. That was amazing and I loved being able to move around the table, spread out books and papers, and work from different angles. I'd love to recreate that again.


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Leah Finnegan


Leah Finnegan

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Leah Finnegan. I am the features editor at The Outline and I write a semi-regular newsletter called Leah Letter about how the media is bad.

What hardware do you use?

I use an 11-in MacBook Air, a 23-in Dell monitor, an Apple Magic Keyboard, the cheapest Logitech wireless mouse Staples had in stock which is very small and I love it, a mouse pad with wrist support, an iPhone 6s which I can't wait to get rid of because the battery life is one minute, and a 6-ft iPhone charging cord.

I have a rolling desk from CB2 and some matching filing cabinets that I store sweaters in. I don't have any actual files. I have a lot of chairs. My desk chair is a vintage green velvet cantilever chair that I got at a store called Coming Soon. It has improved my working life considerably.

For six years I lived in a shoebox studio and basically did all my work on my laptop in bed. Now I live in a shoebox one-bedroom and having space for a desk and a chair and all the things you can put on a desk has been a revelation. I also have a one-cup Keurig which is very important to me.

And what software?

Gmail, Feedly, TextEdit, Google Docs, Slack, Twitter, Kindle for iPhone, Brainium Solitaire for iPhone, and iTunes because I still buy all my music like an elderly person.

What would be your dream setup?

My apartment, but in a silent place, with a constantly replenishing supply of Diet Coke.


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Milena Popova


Milena Popova

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Milena Popova (pronouns: they/them), and I'm incapable of saying no to a shiny project, so I have many fingers in many pies. The current day job (which I love!) is PhD researcher. Depending on who I'm talking to, I'm either a porn researcher, or I research sexual consent in erotic fan fiction. I'm also a blogger and activist (on a whole bunch of issues), I'm running a couple of academic side projects, I sit on the board of the Open Rights Group, and I do some volunteering for the Organisation for Transformative Works. I think those are all the things that I do? PhD research is quite a solitary activity, but a lot of my other work involves collaborating with people, most of whom are probably not even in the same timezone as me.

What hardware do you use?

My desktop is a fairly generic Acer machine, about four years old now. I've also got a 13" Asus laptop (one of those shiny, thin, MacBook wannabe ones). I do a fair amount of work on the go, so my Samsung Galaxy tablet, and especially my phone (currently Samsung Galaxy S8) are super-important to me.

I use a couple of assistive tech pieces. I have a daylight lamp to get me through the interminable UK winter nights without losing the will to breathe and a HandShoe mouse to help me deal with occasional bouts of RSI.

I also really like pen and paper, particularly for thinking tasks and for getting organised. I have a bullet journal which is actually probably the one tool that keeps me on track and enables me to get stuff done. (For the fellow bullet journal geeks out there, I use the Leuchtturm1917 A5 dotted notebook, with Muji rollerball pens, Preppy fountain pens, and plenty of washi tape to help me find things.) I also carry around an A6 notebook with me where I draw mind maps and make notes of my word count and just stick random transactional notes in that help me think in-the-moment.

And what software?

Both my PCs run Linux Mint – I've been a big fan of Free Software since the late 90s. I was a poor student then so free-as-in-beer was a bonus, but the free-as-in-speech aspect has always been important to me. A lot of my work is writing, which to be honest happens mostly in Google Docs, though a fair chunk also happens in xed (the default Linux Mint text editor). I occasionally have to resort to LibreOffice when working with editors who like Word files and comments or tracked changes. I wouldn't recommend using any of these for actually producing a finished 80,000-word thesis though, so as I put the final touches on mine I'm about to embark on the journey of re-learning LaTeX, which is a typesetting mark-up language that produces gorgeous documents.

Reference management is another key part of academic work, and I use Mendeley for that. It's a really cool tool that can output bibliographies in lots of different formats as well as store and file your PDFs of academic papers for you. Importantly, it has a desktop app for Linux and a mobile app for Android, so I can read and manage papers on the go. The only downside of it is that it's owned by Elsevier, who are basically the supervillian of academic publishers, so one of these days I'll bite the bullet and migrate to something else. Speaking of academic publishing, while my university library is amazing, I won't have access to it for much longer. Sci-Hub is a great way of getting access to academic research without the exorbitant pricetag, so I use that a lot.

When it comes to my more collaborative projects, Slack is probably one of my main tools for working with people across continents and timezones. As long as whoever you're collaborating with also makes it part of their systems and routines, it's a really great way to meet, chat, share documents, etc. (even if I'm old enough to know that it's basically glorified IRC for hipster start-ups πŸ˜‰ ). Again, that it comes with a desktop app for Linux and (more importantly) a mobile app is super-important for me: if I can use it on my phone I can integrate it into my life much more easily.

One really cool and unique piece of software I use is to do with my work for the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW). The OTW is a non-profit run by fans (in the widest sense of the word), and one of its biggest projects is the Archive of Our Own: an online archive which currently hosts over 3 million fan works. To organise that volume of stuff, you need metadata, but the OTW is really big on letting users create their own metadata in ways that make sense to them. This way, the OTW is not acting as gatekeepers or roadblocks to the evolution of fannish culture and language. That leaves us with a challenge though, which is that if one fan calls a thing an "Alternative Universe – Coffee Shop" and another calls it a "Coffe Shop AU" it's difficult to find all the fan works containing that concept. Which is where I and a few hundred other volunteers come in: we tag wrangle. While we let users put whatever tags they want on their works, we do some behind-the-scenes work to tell the Archive that "Alternative Universe – Coffee Shop" and "Coffee Shop AU" mean the same thing, so someone searching for fan works containing that concept can find all of them. And for that we use this internal tool called… The Wrangulator! πŸ˜€

In my fannish capacity I am also a podficcer: I record audio performances of other people's fan fiction works. I use the Linux Mint sound recorder for the recording, and Audacity for audio editing.

I'm also a big fan of something my friends and I term "care robots" – various apps that make our lives easier and help us look after ourselves. I have Twilight on my Android devices and f.lux on my PCs to filter blue light after sunset. I use Sleep as Android to track my sleep patterns (and make me go to bed on time) and Relax Melodies to help me clear my head and fall asleep. I also use Zombies, Run! to keep me from getting bored while running (nothing quite as motivating as being told there's twenty fast zombies coming your way!), and I'd probably also class Pokemon GO as a care robot as it gets me out of the house, at least as far as the nearest Pokestop, even on those PhD days when I just want to sit around in my pyjamas and bury myself in some reading.

What would be your dream setup?

One of the things I'd like to get into at some point is video, for which I'd probably need a better camera, a better lighting set-up, and more RAM. Also, video editing on Linux is dicey, so that's something to (reluctantly) think about. In an ideal world I'd probably also have a better mic, a screen, and maybe even a sound-proof recording space.


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Candy Chan


Candy Chan

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Candy Chan, an NYC-based urban designer, architect, and graphic designer. I am the creator of Project Subway NYC, a project about New York City's subway system, which consists of sketches, photographs, 3-D architectural drawings, and an Instagram component. The project started by being mainly about the visuals, but it has slowly developed into a comprehensive thesis about signage, wayfinding, and infrastructure. The blog chronicles my studies, with an ongoing collection of diagrams, trivia, and more.

What hardware do you use?

My process has two parts: on-site data collection and computer graphic production.

The first part involves me physically going into subway stations and taking notes. (I refer to the physical copy of the NYC subway map on my wall to decide where to go). I usually have with me a backpack, a clipboard, a mechanical pencil, white letter size paper, and a keychain that's also a mini measuring tape. I used to use a Sony NEX-3NL camera for pictures, but have recently switched to iPhone 7 since the quality of the pictures are great and it's one less thing to carry. I read on my Kindle when I am riding the subway.

For the second part I sit at my white work desk from Overstock.com, and I use a Microsoft Surface Book and a Logitech MX-310 wireless mouse. I print things with my Canon MG6800 printer.

And what software?

For drafting, I use AutoCAD for 2D and Rhino for 3D. After I export the line work from Rhino I edit the line weights in Adobe Illustrator and add colors and texture in Adobe Photoshop. The collages on my Instagram are done with Photoshop, in which I crop and resize the pictures, and overlay my hand sketches. The filters are done in Instagram (I use the "Lark" and "Luna" filter most). My website is hosted on squarespace.com.

What would be your dream setup?

In an ideal world, I would have a giant empty studio (which is not my home) with wood floors, high ceilings, a giant desk, and multiple large monitors like these. It'd be nice to have a light box for tracing drawings as well as a large format printer for me to test out different print settings. Also my right hand has been hurting from time to time from holding the mouse for too long, so it'd be great to upgrade to an ergonomic mouse!


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Pamela Fox


Pamela Fox

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Pamela Fox. My day job is being the CTO at Woebot Labs, where we're making a chatbot that helps you track your moods and reduce your negative thinking habits, based on the techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

For fun, I run a Friday Night Improv Club and the occasional Improv in the Park. Plus a quick improv every day at 2pm at work, to re-energize the troops. So, yeah, I'm pretty into improv.

For sanity, I have a daily morning practice, which consists of meditation, Tibetan Yoga stretches, compassion prayer, intention setting, and this other crazy awesome thing. More deets here.

I'm also a recovering craftaholic.

What hardware do you use?

Don't try this at home, kids: I'm using a 5-year-old MacBook Pro. Super heavy, broken webcam, broken-90%-of-time USB drive, and a trackpad that gets possessed every 3 months from the spirit of The Water Damage.

Totally works for writing code though, and hey, if ain't completely-and-utterly-broke, don't trash it.

What I actually spend my time fixing: my ergonomic setup. I was totally cool with slouching all day long for my first 10 years in the tech industry, but then I went on a Buddhist retreat for 4 months, and now I'm hyper aware of how my posture affects my mental state.

My setup now: Rain Stand, Bluetooth keyboard, Bluetooth mouse, and a lumbar pillow that I can strap onto any chair in the house.

My improv setup: a laser-cut Improv Marquee of my own creation. I can easily show our line-up for each night and rearrange games on the fly.

My meditation setup: a pillow, a belt or strap (to counter my slouching tendency), and a doorknob hanger to let my roomies know what I'm doing.

And what software?

We're coding up Woebot using JS gosh-darn-everywhere. The bot code is a Node.js AWS Lambda Function, the long-running tasks are handled by a worker tier Node Beanstalk server, and the website is another Node Beanstalk server. Our "CMS" is a Google Spreadsheet, and we use Google Apps Script (JavaScript) to lint and export the content.

We use Atom as our editor of choice, because all the cool kids use it these days, and we wanted to be cool. πŸ˜‰

Besides coding, I'm an Adobe addict. I use Illustrator to make designs for the TechShop laser cutter, and Photoshop for anything else I can justify.

What would be your dream setup?

Here's what I'm envisioning:

My office is a small room with large glass windows. It overlooks a beautiful park with a garden and playground. There are little kids playing outside throughout the day, and I'm buddies with most of them. Sometimes my cats come to the office and just chill.

When I want to eat lunch, I grab some veggies from the garden, chop them into a salad, and eat at a little spot overlooking a tadpole pond.

When I want a break from coding, I go outside and swing on the all-ages swingset. I might do a quick ride down the mini zipline, too.

Instead of happy hour, we all head into the craft room that's shared by all the companies in this complex, and we work on projects that improve our office, like signs, terrariums, pots, whatever the craft of the week is.

Oh, and in this dream, my laptop would have a functioning USB drive.


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Sara Hendren


Sara Hendren

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm an artist, design researcher, and writer, and I teach design and disability studies for engineering students at Olin College. For the last few years I've been running a lab at Olin called the Adaptation and Ability Group. I also co-founded the Accessible Icon Project, designed ramps for skateboarders and wheelchair users in an ongoing project called Slope : Intercept, collected an archive called Engineering at Home, and I write and give talks. My job is actually changing as I compose this post: I'm taking a leave from teaching and will be running a 3-year initiative at Olin, funded by the Mellon Foundation, designed to bring more arts experiences to engineering faculty and students.

I'm also writing my first book and yes, that's a whimper of panic you're hearing in the middle distance. I'm feeling ridiculously lucky to be getting support for the writing as a fellow at New America and from a Public Scholar grant with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I live with my husband and three children in Boston. I still like Twitter.

What hardware do you use?

In Jack Miles's parlance, I'm much more a hunter than a farmer, so the most important work I do is a slow-thinking and non-linear process. For hardware, like a lot of design folks, I live and die by notebooks and pens to capture immediately when I'm making connections. I'm literally never without this combination because I find my inner two-way tape is always running, especially in the grip of a big unwieldy project: formulating and synthesizing and outputting ideas at unexpected times and places.

I've been converted to the Bullet Journal for analog organizing and reminder lists, because even after using beautiful apps like TeuxDeux and OmniFocus, I've found I still remember things better when I physically write them down. I use a daily Pilot fountain pen the most, and other varieties for drawing and writing in a mix of Leuchturm and Moleskine and Rhodia notebooks, all sizes. Don't tell my students, but I can be bribed with any form of bound paper that I haven't yet met, usually over at Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square.

But the most important hardware for me is what carries the pen-notebook combination on walks, which is when I do my best thinking. When I sold my book, I bought myself this Kaweco Lilliput fountain pen and I use it with an XS Volant Journal, and those go together in either this Tube thing or a lightweight vest or a warmer version of the same in winter when I'm down by the Charles River. In short, I'm obsessed with pockets! Pockets, ideally on everything. The Kaweco and the tiny Volant otherwise live in this phone-case-wallet which isn't perfect but working for now. I also use a 13-inch MacBook Air and an iPhone 6S Plus.

Lastly: my husband and I figured out that having all five family members use the exact same Lunch Bots containers makes our mornings much easier. And I realized about a year ago that all three of my kids can now wear the same ankle socks that I do. Small streamlining victories! A few years back I would have listed my encyclopedic knowledge of little-kid hardware: cloth diapers, baby carriers, and strollers-for-cities. If you're in that stage, well — high five, comrade. It gets easier.

And what software?

Being good at my job — and a wiser person — depends so much on my being intellectually omnivorous, and a pre-filtered, echo-chamber internet is my enemy. My long-ago professor and forever-mentor Alan Jacobs got me onto a system for collecting what I don't want to miss and discovering things I didn't know I needed: Newsblur for RSS and the glorious Reeder for consuming that content. I have collections for news and commentary and design, but I also have one called "Daily Thinkers" — people who point me to things I'd never otherwise find on my own — and a gathering of weird little ongoing blogs and Tumblrs that I categorize as "Serendipity/Confluence." I use Pinboard to organize longer reads, and I'm in and out of Instapaper as a backlog. I also like the low-key social functions of reading.am.

I'm using Scrivener for writing my book and Zotero for organizing research sources.

Bonus question that I'm gonna add here: What systems also support your getting things done?

Glad you asked! The Writers' Room of Boston is giving me a fanatically quiet, affordable place to co-work this year. But more profound than that: my kids attend a Title I public school, where there are structures in place that anticipate and plan for full-time working parents. We have high-quality after-school programs and summer camps run through the city, extra specialists in the building, small classroom numbers, and full-day inclusion services for our child who has significant support needs. Our public library system elected to eliminate late fees for children's books(!), so that keeps us swimming in great reading material at home. There's no quantifiable metric I could place on these systems for making our life work.

What would be your dream setup?

I've been eyeing this Punkt dumb phone for years, but what I want is this phone with a mapping function. And then I'd want all that to live in a wallet that had a perfect pen-holder down the inner fold. I'd keep my iPhone for all the scanning and photos and other conveniences, but I'd use the dumb phone more often and consolidate my internet browsing in my laptop or desktop. In the meantime, my car commute is getting whittled down to 1-2 days per week, so I'll be using Stitcher less often. But what I really want is to see services like Audm or SpokenLayer go fully mainstream, so I can easily line up written content online to consume as audio instead.


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Emily Haasch


Emily Haasch

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm foremost a human, secondly an artist and finally a designer. I was born & raised in Chicago, made a stopover in San Francisco, and am now residing in NYC.

I led design at Cards Against Humanity, reimagined spaces for digital art at Electric Objects, and figured out new technologies at ustwo. I create editorial illustrations for a number of publications, including the New Yorker, Polygon, GOOD Magazine, Intercom, and Grand Circus.

I also raise marimos and do a lot of walking in my spare time.

What hardware do you use?

I tend to travel a lot, so everything has to be mobile to some extent.

I work on a 13" Apple Retina MacBook Pro, from 2015. I hate trackpads and especially hate Apple's mice, so I use a black Logitech M325 mouse instead. It's perfect for smallish hands, portable, and fairly indestructible.

I've had the same phone for the past 5 years, and just recently replaced it with.. almost the same phone. I pair it with a reliable Anker PowerCore 10000mAh external battery and Panasonic ErgoFit headphones, of which have a great sonic range for the price. Tossed in a cheap but durable backpack that I like to customize with my friends' artwork, they've traveled around the world with me in more airports than I can count.

When in the office, I sometimes work from an Apple Cinema Display, and use various devices (Apple Watch, Android phones, iPhones, Android Wear, VR headsets, etc.) to test with, depending on the project. For my collages, I scan them via a CanoScan LiDE 120. At home, I rely on a Motorola SBG6580 modem / router & TP-Link AV500 extender to extract the life-giving forces of Internet out of my apartment's Internet-Hole.

Finally, when stressed about design projects, I burn sage.

And what software?

I like to keep things basic, and don't believe in superfluous or crazy-expensive software setups unless necessary. That having said, my work setups can flex based on employer or client, but here's a general overview.

On the personal end, I use LastPass as a password manager in addition to standard best practices. I'm also a heavy Tweetbot, iMessage, and Slack user. I listen to podcasts at night via Overcast.

I create product design work primarily in Sketch, with iconography and general vector illustration in Adobe Illustrator. Animation and prototyping are variable based on context / platform, but I've used Flinto, Marvel, and others in the past and have liked them well enough. Professionally, a lot of my working files are stored and shared via Google Drive. Within a technical context, I write code in Atom, push it to repos via the command line, and QA builds via HockeyApp. Fonts are accessed through FontExplorer and certain projects are managed via Trello.

For my practice as an artist, it's all IRL / analog. Pieces are usually touched up in Photoshop afterwards to remove dust and adjust color grading for a digital screen. Work is stored via Dropbox. I host and promote most of my work via Instagram. I've been getting back into using Are.na for exploration and documenting taste. Finally, I record invoices and track cash flow via Harvest.

What would be your dream setup?

My dream setup would be to have both a quiet studio overlooking a foggy beach, and a more responsible American president.


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John Adams


John Adams

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is John Adams, and I am a security researcher, sound designer, videographer/photographer, and lover of electronics. I've been doing this since my dad showed me a working radio when I was young.

Most know me as @netik on Twitter, where I was employee 13. I spent many years building that place (security and operations) and these days I have switched over to spending my time on independent computer security research and putting more time into music production and electronics.

I spent my last year building the "Ides of DEF CON" badge with four friends. We built a videogame from scratch, including an RPG game engine, in which you could wear and fight people over the built-in packet radio. It's one of the most complex things I've ever built and our team was fantastic! We manufactured 225 of them and they were in very high demand at DEFCON, the world's largest hacker conference, this year.

In addition to all of this, I am on the advisory board of Open Technology Fund and I'm a speaker, fellow, and videographer for Odd Salon, a monthly talk series on odd things — "Expert Talks on Odd Topics. Odd Talks on everything else!"

What hardware do you use?

I've got a small recording studio at home. It consists of a large ProStation, on a desk manufactured by Omnirax. It's filled with quite a bit of audio production gear:

Computer wise, the main machine is:

There are also random office things here like an HP Officejet X476dw, the world's fastest inkjet printer.

A large A-Frame synthesizer rack from Jaspers (a German synth rack company) lives next to the desk. It currently holds five hardware synths:

..and a Samsung monitor.

Hiding under the desk is the land of the old school which doesn't get powered up much… Roland TB-303 acid bassline synthesizer. Oberheim Matrix 6R synth. Panasonic SV3200 DAT deck.

The second desk, behind me is a full electronics workstation for repair and rework. I built this desk over the last year while working with our team on the badge. That desk holds a large, grounded anti-static mat, and on that desk are large wooden shelves, custom made, holding:

  • Rigol DS1054Z digital oscilloscope
  • Weller WES51 soldering iron with many tips
  • Hakko FR-810 hot air station
  • Amscope 45X-90X stereo microscope on a boom stand
  • Fluke 179 multimeter and microscope/needle probes
  • HP Logic Analyzer
  • Tektronix 100Mhz Oscilloscope (analog)
  • A generic fume extractor
  • A generic bi-polar power supply unit
  • Various wires, chemicals, and replacement electronics parts in bins

The third area is a set of shelves which is our video department. It holds:

Then, there's a couch (actually a pull-out bed) for guests in case these sessions go too long.

My daily carry is a MacBook Pro, and sometimes if I'm traveling, I take an iPad which is mainly used for reading.

I nearly always carry the following: A pair of Ultimate Audio UE-7 headphones, a Sharpie, a roll of Board Tape (aka Artist's Tape), a Gerber Multitool, and a strong, bright flashlight. Batteries like many Eneloop AA's and a Mophie get me through my day.

And what software?

Daily software / security work:

Emacs (yes, still), gcc, OpenOCD, Burp proxy, Metasploit, Kali Linux, macOS, nmap, Wireshark, tcpdump, etc.

Music:

Video/Photo:

What would be your dream setup?

I think for the most part I'm there. There are a few more things I want but there's very little that I think I need to survive these days. The room is really, really excellent to work in. I could use some sound proofing / sound treatment in here, and I'd really like it if my HOA allows me to tear out the windows and install a roof deck, but hey, it's great in here.

If I could have anything in the world added to the studio it would be all of the early Roland x0x drum machines, a few BAE or Neve 1073 mic pres, and a collection of vintage Neumann microphones. I'll also always take more synthesizers, because you can't have enough of those.

If someone could invent the infinite storage disk drive with low-latency, I'll take one of those too.

I'd also like to get a 100MBit or better line from my house to the Internet. My current Internet connection is so slow, and I produce too much video to have a slow uplink.


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Dorian Taylor


Dorian Taylor

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Dorian Taylor, and my job is to clean up very specific kinds of messes. I've tried all sorts of florid and important-sounding job descriptions and concomitant titles, and at the end of the day they're not only pompous and alienating, but just plain inaccurate. I don't "design experiences"; I certainly don't "build products". I don't even really "architect information". I schlep entropy. I take the disorder I find in organizations and do my best to clean it up. In that way I'm more like a janitor than a designer, engineer, architect, strategist, management consultant, whatever.

Right now, I am particularly interested in the mess around cleaning up messes: meta-mess if you will. It has to do with the ostensible fact that the second a process touches a computer, it becomes an IT problem. In other words, we become preoccupied with whether we can solve the problem rather than what the problem even is. It becomes attractive, in organizations, to enter into arrangements that look like they clean up messes, but instead create bigger messes.

Of course, if you bleach the "technology" out of "information technology", you're left with "information", which exhibits properties that a reasonably shrewd person of any era can understand:

  • Is your model of the world both comprehensible and accurate?
  • Are you getting accurate and timely data that enables you to make decisions which lead to favourable outcomes (and avoid disfavourable ones)?
  • Do your business relationships reconcile with your model, and facilitate the collection and interpretation of information (and subsequently your ability to act on that information), or do they conflict with and/or inhibit these activities?
  • If the latter, how hard is it to get out of those relationships? (And presumably into more favourable ones?)

Knowledge is (leverage over) power, so disparities in knowledge mark disparities in power. The "tech industry" is really all about making people dependent on your own little vision of reality. I don't believe it has to be that way, though.

What hardware do you use?

I do a lot of work on ordinary photocopier paper with a BIC mechanical pencil. If I have to travel, I use a Moleskine. I have a thing I made called a "cell calendar" which is just a piece of Bristol board that represents a week's worth of cells — four-hour contiguous units of time in which the real thinking (and subsequent entropy-schlepping) gets done. When you subtract the irreducible maintenance time of sleep, food, hygiene and chores, I find you can max out on about three of these in a day. Emphasis on max out. When you're flying solo, the thing you consider to be your "actual job" only takes up a sliver of your waking life. With everything else going on, I'm lucky to get one of these in a day, and I might do a three-cell day only a handful of times a year.

Or by "hardware" did you mean "computers"?

I suppose it befits a self-described "entropy janitor" to use reclaimed e-waste. I have a hand-me-down MacBook of ambiguous vintage which I use as a front end to an old Dell I picked up from Free Geek for fifty bucks. That lives in a closet and runs all my work stuff, and I can connect to it from wherever, with whatever device I have on hand. My phone is some Android thing I bought off my little brother that's probably approaching 3 years old. About the only object containing a CPU I've bought new in the last eight years is the second-crappiest possible tablet I could buy, and that was only because I wanted a multi-touch control surface for a tool I was working on.

Computers have been "fast enough" to be serviceable for most contemporary needs for almost two decades. Three decades if you count pre-Internet uses. What's more (Moore?) is that the laws of physics have finally put a hard upper bound on megahertz, so now chip manufacturers are just stacking on cores. Okay, so let's say you've got the hulkingest monster twelve-core 3-gigahertz Xeon Mac Pro money can buy. Guaranteed eleven of those things are going to be sitting idle, and the twelfth is going to spike here and there when you apply a Photoshop filter or watch a llama video on YouTube. That's the CPU going NOP, NOP, NOP, times eleven and a half, three billion times a second.

If you're doing 3D or video compositing (and I suppose now, VR and/or AI) then I can see caring about hardware. The last time I did 3D was as a teenager on a 486, and I remember drooling over those $50,000 SGI Octanes that could render mesh in real time. Now that kind of thing is an OS effect – on phones no less – which is really what most of those CPU cycles are needed for these days. Oh, and games, I suppose, but I haven't played one of those in a while.

All that said, I suppose one of these days soon I'll get off my ass and buy some slick little MacBook Air in case I have to pull it out in front of a client – for the exact same reason a real estate agent drives a Mercedes.

And what software?

I suppose I should start with the OS: The computer I actually type into is always a Mac because it has the finish quality you can only get with commercial software, but is still properly POSIX and won't fuss over open-source stuff. The development server is always some Debian variant, because their stringent policy tends to produce a sane working environment, including a vastly superior packaging system. In my case the variant is Ubuntu, which is slightly less crunchy-granola than the original. Any router or firewall-like thing is always OpenBSD, because reasons. I've been running this hardware/OS configuration for about ten years now, and before then I would dual-boot Windows and Debian.

On top of that, there aren't really many "apps" I use. There was a period in my career in which I spent a lot of time with the Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign trifecta. I barely ever touch those these days. Most apps I use are commodity front-ends to standard protocols and data formats: Mail, iCal, etc. Consider my browser: I use Firefox, because I put the effort into tarting it up with add-ons, but in a pinch just about any other browser will do. I'm intentionally cultivating a non-committal stance toward apps. That's not to say the function of the app isn't important – it's often essential. It's the vendor I have no commitment to. This is deliberate.

There's probably one exception, and that's Emacs, the venerable text editor, wherein I actually do the work that pays me. Switching away from that would be a nightmare.

After my mΓ©nagerie of operating systems and relative paucity of apps, I actually write a lot of my own tools. I could list the whole stack but that isn't very interesting, so I'll just summarize the languages: Perl is still my daily driver; I've been writing in it since 1997. That said I am not averse to Python or Ruby for doing the same kind of, let's call it, "utility coding" work. I am also finding myself spending more and more time with R. For more organized "systems", I've recently been looking at Clojure. It's slick as hell. I expect to be fully weaponized in it by the end of the year.

As is the trend with most programming polyglots, I have a workable proficiency in about eight other languages, each waiting for its opportunity to get put to meaningful use. I also have preferences: I generally eschew anything Microsoft (like Visual Basic), anything that relies too heavily on JavaScript, and you could not pay me enough to touch PHP.

What would be your dream setup?

My "dream setup" doesn't exist. It could have existed – it did exist, in experimental form, almost fifty years ago. There's no reason in principle why it couldn't exist, but it seems to chafe against prevailing cultural values.

There's a philosophical debate that's been going on almost since the beginning, about what the role of the computer in society ought to be. It boils down to a question like, "Are computers supposed to do our thinking for us, or are they supposed to be dumb tools that help us think?"

It shouldn't really surprise anybody which is the majority position and which is the minority. There's something romantic – nay, eschatological – about artificial intelligence. The first thing people tried to get computers to do, after aiming nuclear missiles, was think. They're still trying. And they're sort of getting somewhere, and everybody oohs and aahs at the latest self-driving car or face-recognizing camera or sassy chatbot, but if you think about it, these represent the absolute basic understanding of "intelligence", artificial or otherwise.

Meanwhile, the property of computers that people have been harnessing to construct such baroque artifices for conducting elementary cognitive tasks has been available for direct use in the augmentation of complex human cognitive tasks, almost ever since Alan Turing cooked up the idea for his ticker tape machine.

What I mean is this: We human beings reason over conceptual entities, and the relations that bind them. When these structures get too big to hold in our heads all at once, we outsource them to a representational medium, such as paper. Then we can take our time to comprehend them. However, a two-dimensional plane such as a piece of paper is still extremely limited in its capacity for coherently representing a complex conceptual structure, unless you resort to more and more esoteric mathematical representations. Even then, you're still screwed if you have a lot of data.

Now: we can think of a Turing machine as a sort of mutant cousin to the film projector, and both as the logical successors to the zoetrope. The zoetrope, of course, is the toy for which you draw little pictures at set intervals along a strip of paper, then you put the paper into the zoetrope which is shaped like a large ring. Then you spin the zoetrope on its axis and peek through slits near the top edge, and you can see the pictures move. A zoetrope moves faster than our eyes can keep up, and can thus effectively take a multiple of (two dimensional) space and translate it into the dimension of time.

So this is what a computer does that's truly novel: A Turing machine (and by extension any computer based on the design, which currently is all of them) is doing the exact same thing, save for the fact that it uses symbols instead of images. It also has the feature that every "frame" has an address. This leads to a trick, where you can set the meaning of one frame to be the address of another. The net effect is, unlike a zoetrope which just runs in a loop, or a film projector which runs front to back, you have something which can jump around in from frame to frame in either direction, reuse segments of "film", and even rewrite the contents in situ. This is all while leveraging the same persistence-of-vision effect, essentially amortizing complexity over very small slices of time.

What that means is that you can represent conceptual structures which are much, much more complex than you ever could on a piece of paper, and you can manipulate those structures in milliseconds in ways that would take months or even years otherwise. And what that means is you could solve really complex problems – even ones that are too wacky to fob off to AI. We don't see people taking direct advantage of this capability very often though, unless it's for the purpose of making software, which, ironically, is either contorted one way, to pretend to be some technology that existed before computers, or another way, to pretend to be an intelligent agent. This, to me, has the air of obscurantist, dissimulative hocus-pocus.

I suppose that's really the issue for me: sovereignty. Every artifact embodies, in some way, the values of its creator. A shrinkwrapped app is basically a recording of its author saying "I want you to think about X the way I do. I want you to work the way I think you should." Even the developer-grade frameworks and languages I use to make my own software are opinionated, but at least I have the final say on which ones I use, and how the overall system behaves. Go a teeny bit farther in the AI direction, however, and the message is something like "we're not exactly sure how it works, but you should do what it says anyway." If you're going to do things that way, you could just as easily look for messages in chicken guts or something.

I understand that we live in an increasingly interdependent world. I'm okay with interdependence. What I'm not okay with is one-way dependence, on particular people, business entities, robots, whatever. I'm not espousing some form of digital survivalism, I just want to be able to pick who I deal with, and if it doesn't work out, I want to be able to pick somebody else – all the way up and down the stack. Proximately what that means is that I can get my data out, and if I can't find a replacement for some particular operation, I can make one. Ultimately what it means, then, is that I understand my "dream system" as well as I need to in order to be sovereign over it.

App/platform vendors don't want sovereigns, of course. Their entire business models are designed around creating dependents, and then it's wall-to-wall ads and behavioural data sold out the back alley, all day long. I don't view that as a conspiracy though, it's more like "econophysics". There just hasn't been a strong enough alternative yet.


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