Shelly Alon


Shelly Alon

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Shelly Alon. I'm a 25 year old freelance designer and independent game developer from Hamburg, Germany. I studied design at the University of Applied Sciences Hamburg (HAW Hamburg) and now I've continued on with an Illustration Master's degree. I've dabbled in typography, editorial design, photography and animation, but for the past three to four years I've basically just done games.

I've started out with a few friends, and we made a mystical point & click adventure called Olav & the Lute. Then I started developing on my own — mostly small puzzle games for mobile. For example, Partyrs, a puzzle game about throwing a party and making all the guests happy. Sputnik Eyes is about exploring different planets with sweet mono-eye robots. I'm developing on my own and doing all the code and art work. For music and sounds I rely on talented friends.

My latest game Glitchskier is an arcade action game disguised as an old pirated game on a Windows 95 computer. While I am not really satisfied with it, it's my most successful game yet. It won the German Video Games Award in the category Best Mobile Game.

I also do some freelance design work. Nothing that's worth mentioning.

What hardware do you use?

I'm mostly working on a custom built Windows computer. It's not the monster I would like it to be, but it's more than enough for what I'm doing. Additionally I own a second-hand Macbook Pro (13 inch) from 2011. You need some kind of OS X machine in order to submit apps to the Apple App Store — and it's useful to have something portable. Right now I'm in Israel for a few months and I'm only using this Macbook. I have a (second hand, buy second hand, people!) iPhone 5s as my phone and testing device.

I also use a Wacom Intuos (aprox. A4), though I'll be changing to a Cintiq soon, I hope.

And what software?

I'm using Unity 3D and MonoDevelop for game development and Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator for artwork. For animation and video work I use Adobe After Effects (yeah, I never learned Premiere – I edit in AE). If I need to work on audio stuff, I use Audacity. And I'm just trying to get into 3D again, and for that I use C4D (the student version).

I do make websites sometimes, and for that I'm using Sublime Text.

What would be your dream setup?

To be honest, I'm pretty happy with my setup. As I said before, I'm thinking of getting a Cintiq to replace my Intous graphic tablet. I won't say no to a newer Macbook Pro, and a better processor and graphic card for my PC. I still have a lot to learn and I need to improve my skills, and in the end it all comes down to what I'm doing with the hardware I have.


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Christopher Allan Webber


Christopher Allan Webber

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Christopher Allan Webber, or Chris Webber for short. (Though there's another Chris Webber in the FLOSS space that does devops things… if you see me expand my name all the time, now you know why!) You can find me at my personal website, or on the federated social web on identi.ca which runs pump.io and octodon.social which runs Mastodon. (Sadly you'll see those federated social web examples don't interoperably federate, but that's something we're working on… see the ActivityPub stuff later.) If you must, I'm also available on the birdsite.

I've done a few things of possible note; I co-founded GNU MediaGoblin which is a distributed media hosting platform along the lines of Flickr/SoundCloud/YouTube. I'm co-editor of the ActivityPub specification for federation (which is how you get distributed websites to talk to each other) which is being done as part of the W3C Social Working Group. I'm co-chair of the W3C Social Web Incubator Community Group which you can view as carrying on the work of the Social Working Group. I also occasionally contribute to GNU Guix and GNU Guile, as well as various miscelaneous projects. A number of years ago, before I went to do the decentralized web stuff full time, I was a programmer and at one point tech lead of Creative Commons.

ActivityPub is taking up most of my time these days, but I think is pretty important. The social web is an enormous part of peoples' lives these days, and for the most part, it's controlled by a handful of small companies. I think we can do better, and ActivityPub hopes to unite the federated social web… it looks like we might even succeed (there's been an uptake in interest from the existing federated social web places, eg Mastodon and Nextcloud and probably GNU Social and diaspora, and MediaGoblin and Pump.io have long dedicated themselves to adopt the standard). But time will tell. At this very moment I'm trying to get the standards test suite done, which is super boring, so I'm taking any distraction I can seemingly. A good time to follow up on this thread!

I have a good number of side projects which I don't find enough time for mainly because the ActivityPub stuff is taking up so much of my time. I think the most fun of these is GNU 8sync, which is an implementation of the actor model in Guile. There's a video on the 8sync homepage that shows me doing a demonstration of 8sync where the talk was itself a MUD (multi-user-dungeon) that the audience was able to play as I discussed it. That kind of stuff is super fun to me and I hope I can find some time to get back to it soon.

What hardware do you use?

At the moment, a ThinkPad X200 laptop flashed with Libreboot which I usually have docked. It's upgraded with 8 gigs of RAM and a larger hard drive which makes things pretty manageable, but I wish it had a better graphics card. For whatever reason, even though I can run OpenGL blob-free on this, it was one of Intel's earlier graphics cards, and the performance has gotten pretty bad for anything 3D. (I miss being able to do artwork in Blender..) For everything else though it's surprisingly a pretty robust machine for something nearly a decade old. (That's probably due to computers not having improved that much CPU-wise over the last decade.)

I used to have a ThinkPad X220 but then I was in a talk given by John Sullivan a couple years ago and he talked about Intel ME / AMT and I was like "Whaaaaat??? How have I not heard of this? A low-level backdoor into nearly every modern computer?" I started to do research into that and was shocked to find out that they exposed a web interface from which you could compromise the machine even when it's off. I guess this was for corporate deployment purposes but I found it to be pretty alarming. I checked my BIOS and found out that it was turned on, along with something called CompuTrace which, as best as I could tell, was for some anti-theft purpose which reported information about your computer's whereabouts. It was run by a car anti-theft company named LoJack. I turned off both of those (to the extent you can be sure they're actually turned off, but since there's no source code to that, I couldn't really), but was pretty spooked by the whole thing. IIRC there's even a single key deployed by default for all these machines, and while you can change it, that seems like a really easy way to exploit a whole lot of hardware out there.

For a while I would tell people about this and I think the average person was pretty skeptical that this was a concern to the extent that I was expressing (the Cassandra Complex is high in FLOSS people I think, for better or worse). Well, there was the news a while ago about Intel AMT having a really terrible bug that allows for super easy exploit so I guess people generally recognize it as a problem now. Will Intel or AMT release new chips without these problems? I'm not sure. People really want it though.

I also have a Kinesis Advantage2 keyboard because a few years ago I had serious repetitive strain issue problems. At one point I also used foot pedals for ctrl and alt but I kind of stopped doing that, but I'm not sure why. (Why not use your feet for programming? They're just sitting there.)

And what software?

I mostly live in GNU Emacs, where I program, read my mail using mu4e, and orgnize my life using the incredible org-mode.

I'm running the GNU/Linux distribution GuixSD. (Guix is the userspace package manager, which can run on any distribution, and GuixSD is Guix turned into full-on distro form.) It's pretty incredible for a few reasons: it's a functional package manager, which I think doesn't say much to most people, so I like to say "it's like Git for your whole operating system". Ever had an upgrade that went badly? No problem in Guix… you can always just roll back. It also solves the disconnect between language package managers for development, where people want to have isolated environments to just work with/on certain packages, and distro package management, which people want to be fairly stable and to be the bedrock of their system. In Guix you have a nice "environment" feature, which if you're familiar with Python development workflows is kind of like a "universal virtualenv". In all my new projects I put a guix.scm file and if you have Guix, you can just run guix environment -l guix.scm and it opens up a shell with everything you need to get hacking already set up for you.

There's one more really thrilling thing about Guix, and that's that the whole thing is written in Guile, which is a kind of Scheme, which is a kind of Lisp, which is a kind of programming language with lots of parentheses everywhere. This is (aside from the libre-pureness) the distinguishing feature between Guix and Nix. Guix is written entirely in the same language, including in package definitions. It does a really nice job of taking advantage of the "code is data and data is code" aspect of Lisp. This means that your whole operating system is heavily programmable. More on why this matters later.

I currently run the window manager StumpWM which I consider to be the most tolerable of the tiling window managers, but I do envision something better. It's nice that it's written in Lisp; it's my personal opinion that as many things as possible should be written in Lisps. I used to run GNOME, and I still think GNOME is pretty great and beautiful, but I found it was pretty hard to configure to do what I wanted and I got a bit frustrated with extensions breaking between releases. The main reason I moved to StumpWM though is that GNOME 3 is pretty heavy on OpenGL usage, and as I said, this laptop doesn't really do OpenGL well. I still think the GNOME people are doing good work in general though, and I'm glad it's there for most people.

Back in the day I used to do artwork in Blender and in The GIMP for fun. I haven't had time for that, but I really miss it. Some day maybe I'll learn to use Krita, which seems pretty cool. I'd also like to do more game development.

What would be your dream setup?

Wow, lots to unpack there. Let's start with me personally, and then broaden to social stuff.

You said "dream setup", so I'm going to go on the "dream big" setup. Dreaming big, I'd have my own personal computer attached to my body which ran completely libre software/hardware from top to bottom. It would have a visual overlay over my normal vision, but not a camera; I don't want to surveil everyone. (If it had a camera, it would at least have a physical shutter which could be visible whether open/closed.) I'd like to run something as configurable as Emacs, but maybe not necessarily Emacs, but definitely configurable in Lisp. Instead of keystrokes, I'd like to be able to fire off commands just by thinking of them, but be able to bind them to any procedure I control, similar to keystrokes being bound to commands in Emacs. Once I had this I'd throw my phone right into the garbage. (Actually I'd probably donate it or recycle it.)

The operating system running on this dream-machine might be a lot more Lisp-like from the ground up. I gave a talk on the Lisp Machine and GNU not too long ago, maybe that gives you some ideas of what the dream setup looks like to me. It would probably use a microkernel architecture and have a capability-based security design, which it turns out is pretty much the same design as GNU Hurd, but the Hurd is widely ridiculed, except now that it looks like Google is working on an OS design that looks an awful lot like the Hurd people think maybe it's a good design again.

Of course, it's dangerous to dream big! Anyone who knows about the perils of Worse is Better vs The Right Thing knows what I'm talking about. And there's some real lessons to learn that the best designs are not necessarily the ones that survive. But eventually most of the good ideas from them survive, in mangled forms. See also Greenspun's Tenth Rule and the fact that nearly every every good concept from Lisp has become popularly adopted elsewhere ages after the fact, except for the parenthetical notation that permitted developing all those good ideas to be so feasible. Oh well. But you asked me to dream, so there are the dreams.

So socially! Short term, I think we're currently in a crisis as in terms of peoples' ability to deploy servers. I've been in this decentralized social web space for a while, and part of the problem is that it's a huge curve to start deploying, and then they struggle to keep their servers running. That includes me, even as an advocate in this space. My friend Deb Nicholson and I came up with the term UserOps which I like to contrast with DevOps. Right now, deployment is focused on enterprise'y and startup'y teams which have a ton of highly skilled, highly technical resources which are paid to be highly available to keep things running. Well, if we want to get self-hosting into the hands of people, those assumptions can't be true. Not everyone is a technical expert, and most people don't have that much time.

Well, I know a bunch of people who agree on UserOps being important, but not everyone agrees on the solution. Personally (did you guess it?), I think the right decision has to do with Guix. I mentioned before that Guix is highly programmable, and that's what distinguishes it from Nix. I think this is going to be really important, because we're currently in a terrible crisis where it's very difficult for people to deploy and upgrade and keep to date their systems. I think Guix can help, and I've given a talk on this with my friend David Thompson. People are afraid to upgrade machines, and we already have that solved, and it's also hard to develop enough expertise to start and administer machine deployment. For that latter part we haven't yet built enough (my friend Aeva likes to say that Guix is currently like "Gentoo for adults") but the highly programmable nature of Guix gives me hope that we can; since everything is written in Guile, you can write programs that write programs, and even programs that write out package definitions and even programs that write out operating system definitions, declaratively. Maybe you can see where I'm going with this: imagine having a web interface where you select installing MediaGoblin and Prosody and WordPress and fill in your domain name and etc, and the web interface just sets up the whole thing. Well you can get that very cleanly with GuixSD as the root design. Plus, you can do an upgrade, and if things go badly, you can always just roll back! (Well, minus any migrations made to the state of your databases and etc. Hopefully we can make backups easy too.)

Okay, great. So people are now able to deploy libre network services, and that's great. So on top of that, hopefully we're all speaking the same network protocol… maybe ActivityPub? Now we've got a decentralized social network. Woot, we're on track! Though there's still things to be tweaked in that setup; currently all the examples in ActivityPub show using https:// type links (however, we don't mandate that; it might be possible that people could start federating with a different uri scheme that's more peer to peer). It would be even nicer to have a network what doesn't rely on DNS, something much more distributed. Now attach public keys to everyone's profile, and… now we're really getting somewhere.

Gosh, doing all this would take a lot of work! What's the point of all this technology though? What'd the point of this "ideal setup"? Is technology for technology, or is it for the embetterment of human kind? Well golly, I sure hope it's the latter. We used to have this Jetsons and Star Trek optimistic idea of the future that when we automated all this stuff away that people would be able to persue creative endeavors. I know some people think that without a profit motivation nobody is willing to do anything, but those people probably don't have any artist friends. There's a lot of stuff to get done that really matters and is even crazy hard to fund (math, science, humanities, some kinds of engineering, art, literature, environmental, social service stuff, or even good ol' fashioned free software authoring). Well what is the point of all this automation if we aren't freeing up resources for that stuff? I don't know what the right solution is; it could be minimum basic income, or it could be something else, but which future do you want, an automated future where people have time to explore humanity and improve the world, or an automated future where all the money is poured into the pockets of just a few people while everyone else is unemployed and desperate?

Here's a free startup idea (and I'm dead serious about this): a company that automates away executive positions. Target shareholders, tell them that your AI-plus-deskworkers are able to generate dramatically better performance for a fraction of the expense, which means extra money for shareholders from all those costly executive positions. Do that, and you'll see how fast the upper crust who are against social services and minimum basic income turn their butts around.

Speaking of that, the stuff I work on is myself pretty hard to fund. You can support me on Patreon or by donating to MediaGoblin through the FSF or by hiring me as a contractor for some free software project… I'm easy to contact!


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Kate Compton


Kate Compton

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm an inventor, artist, and PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, go banana slugs! I worked in the games industry for 5 years, at Maxis, making algorithms to design the planets on Spore, and scripting the fire system on the latest SimCity. I went back to grad school to get my PhD in Computer Science with the Expressive Intelligence Studio, a group of interdisciplinary artificial intelligence researchers using AI for expressive purposes, like digital characters and interactive art. At the same time, I founded Seebright, a startup for the phone-based VR/AR headset that I'd invented (as far as I know, I was the first to use phones for VR!)

I'm most recently well-known for popularizing and educating people about procedural content generation in games and generative methods in many fields, with blog posts and GDC talks, and developing the popular newbie-friendly text-generation language Tracery. I also make a lot of strange generative works of my own, including several Twitter bots.

What hardware do you use?

I use a 2015 MacBook Pro and the ultra-light 2016 Macbook for travel. But many of my art installations use very unusual interfaces and a wide range of hardware toys, like Laser Pico projections on styrofoam heads, a projection on a spandex screen with a Kinect interface, a Leap Motion controlling a wall-sized projection, and most recently, a slime-filled balloon and an Arduino.

And what software?

I use JavaScript almost exclusively now, after years of Java. There are so many good libraries! I use Sublime, Transmit, and after some dissatisfaction with LightPaper, I'm writing my own text editor for my dissertation work.

What would be your dream setup?

I think I have my dream setup! Lots of oddball toys at home, plus my lightweight laptop for easy travel when backpacking between conferences. I would dearly love a big workshop with a laser-cutter and a CNC machine, though.


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Brianna Howard


Brianna Howard

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Bri Howard, 26, Michigan. I'm an artist and tattooist.

What hardware do you use?

For tattooing I use rotary machines instead of coil machines. Rotaries are much lighter and ergonomic for my hands, so I can tattoo for longer and damage myself less. I use my computer and iPad Pro for designs. I can be much more efficient and versatile with designs this way, though I still love good ol' paper and pencil.

And what software?

I use Photoshop sometimes, but mostly Procreate on the iPad Pro with a Pencil. Sometimes I use the Amaziograph app for mandala designs. I love Procreate, it makes my designing process so much faster and more enjoyable. Plus if I need to make last minute changes, it's super easy. Don't like the color of the rose I drew for you? Swish of a finger, boom, now the red rose is blue. It's great!

What would be your dream setup?

Big open space with a tattoo station right in the middle. Art all over the walls, a little office for my computer and drawing, another room for my fine art studio space. If I could have a few different rotartary machines and every color of ink I could ever need, I'd be set, tattooing wise!

Fine art things.. all the oils, watercolors, and Prismacolor pencils, and some sexy brushes from Trekkell Art Supplies. Mmm.

Oh, and micron pens falling from the sky would be great too!


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Isaac Childres


Isaac Childres

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Isaac Childres, owner and designer of Cephalofair Games, a board game publishing company that has put out two titles so far: Gloomhaven and Forge War. I spend pretty much my entire day on my computer, managing Kickstarter customers and coordinating my business through email, as well as designing new games and new content for my existing games.

What hardware do you use?

I mainly use my desktop computer, which I built about 3 or 4 years ago. I honestly couldn't tell you what the specs on it are, though. I just followed some guides published by Newegg and then pretty much forgot all that information. I sometimes use my wife's iMac for Skype calls, though, because my desktop fan is super-loud.

You might also call all my prototyping components for game designs "hardware" too. I mainly use surplus bits from my other games, but sometimes I scavenge other games parts, too. The most helpful prototyping object I have, though, is a 25"x25" cloth mat from Chessex with hexes on one side and squares on the other. It is very useful for creating game boards.

And what software?

Chrome is the number one program open on my computer always. I also use Excel a lot to handle order spreadsheets. I do a lot of amateur graphic design work, as well, either when prototyping or when my real graphic designer doesn't have time to do something. I mainly use InDesign for that, with some smattering of Photoshop, GIMP, or Paint for image manipulation when needed. I also have a bad habit of doing rough graphic design work in PowerPoint.

What would be your dream setup?

Honestly, I don't really think much about improving my setup. It is functional, which is all I need. My computer could probably do with some upgrades, I guess. I could use more memory and processing power.


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Lauren Gallagher


Lauren Gallagher

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Lauren Gallagher, a Chicago-based graphic designer, currently working as the Lead Designer for Cards Against Humanity. I also work as a designer for Blackbox, help curate our office gallery space with the Chicago Design Museum, and assist in running a small printing press that's currently lacking an online presence.

What hardware do you use?

I usually start a design project by writing a list about the brief in my sketchbook, which is usually a Field Notes or Moleskine. Then I move onto sketching. I like using colored MUJI pens so I can include grids or directions within each sketch. After that it depends on the project, but I do all of my digital design work on a 2015 15" MacBook Pro. If I'm working on a print piece for Cards Against Humanity or for myself, I might print in-house on our HP DesignJet T520 or risograph it on our RISO EZ391U.

And what software?

Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop for design, Sketch and Sublime Text for front-end, Slack for communication, Bear for note-taking, Pocket for saving online articles, and Spotify for music-listening. I'd like to learn Cinema 4D or Blender to start incorporating 3D into my practice.

What would be your dream setup?

To be the honest the Cards Against Humanity office is pretty close to ideal. The office functions as a coworking space for local writers, podcasters, game designers, web developers, photographers, puzzle makers.. the list gets longer and weirder. I love getting to know them, their willingness to share their knowledge and talent is invaluable. It's my favorite part about working at Cards Against Humanity. The only thing I'd want is a more spacious print studio for everyone to share.


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John Romero


John Romero

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hello, I'm John Romero and I'm a game designer, programmer, level design, and audio engineer all rolled into one person. I work at my game company Romero Games Ltd. based in Galway, Ireland. I just finished a game called Gunman Taco Truck (desktop & mobile) and a game jam release named July 4, 1976. I'm currently working on a big multi-year game. I've been making games since 1979 and love what I do every day. It's the best job in the world. I work with my wife, Brenda, who has been in this industry since 1981.

What hardware do you use?

I've been using the same Mac Pro since it was released three years ago and it's still incredible. It's a 2013 Mac Pro (the black trashcan) with 8-core 3.0Ghz CPUs, 64GB 1866Mhz RAM, two FirePro D500 (3GB each), 1TB ePCI SSD, with two Thunderbolt monitors and one 4K monitor. I have 12TB RAID for huge storage, and Bose speakers.

I also use a PC with an AMD Ryzen 1800X, 64GB DDR4 3000Mhz RAM, 512GB SSD, 2TB SSHD, and Nvidia GTX 1070 (8GB) running Windows 10.

I have my 4K monitor hooked up to the PC, Mac Pro, and Switch console. I also use my iPhone 7 Plus when I'm not on my computers. I love Apple's ecosystem because iCloud keeps me updated constantly on my MacBook Air, iPhone, iPad, and Mac Pro all the time. When I change files on my desktop that's reflected on all my devices. I can even look at my desktop files from my iPhone because iCloud syncs it all. I love it.

And what software?

I use a ton of software. Here's a list: Xcode, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Sublime Text, Corona SDK, Unity, Final Cut Pro, Versions, Perforce, VMWare Fusion, Messages, REAPER, Transmit, Coda, Dropbox, Skype, Dashlane, Slack, Terminal, Assembla, Airmail, Spark Mail, Google Docs, Pixelmator, Pixen, TexturePacker, Particle Designer, Tiled, iTunes + Music + Match, Screenium, Steam, Twitter, Facebook.

When I have to use Excel, Word or PowerPoint I have an Office 365 subscription.

What would be your dream setup?

My dream setup would be a new Mac Pro, since everything else is already part of my dream setup. Apple hasn't announced a date for the new Pro, so I'm just waiting. I have no complaints, however, because my Mac Pro feels as fast as day one because macOS is so well-designed. No registry.

Office-wise, we are located in city center Galway. That means we can walk for about two minutes and be right in the middle of town where there are a hundred food options. Galway is one of the friendliest towns in the world. We moved here in 2015 and plan to stay.


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Tara Mann


Tara Mann

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Tara Mann, I'm a designer at Basecamp, where I work on our iOS app. Previously I worked at Twitter and Science Inc in Los Angeles. I've been designing consumer-facing mobile apps since college, I love designing for that context. I'm also into comedy and writing, so I spend a lot of time doing those things as well.

What hardware do you use?

I've been an Apple person since I was a kid. I use a 13" MacBook Pro (late 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports model) when I need a desktop computer. During a normal workday I'll dock my MacBook Pro to my Apple Thunderbolt display, but not always, sometimes it's nice to just work full-screen on a smaller display.

I use the 9.7" iPad Pro (silver, wifi, 128GB), along with the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. I was shocked how much these two accessories have changed my usage patterns, especially the Pencil. I now do all my design sketching on the iPad, putting together loose flows and UI ideas – it's the first iPad I have used almost everyday since getting it. For email and writing, the Smart Keyboard makes it super easy to multi-task (those keyboard shortcuts!) and actually feel productive. It takes the handcuffs off of iOS in some ways.

My most used piece of hardware is my iPhone 7 (Jet Black, 256GB). I use it for photos, videos, and tons of social media stuff. I also use it for working on random pieces of writing while I'm on the subway or in a coffee shop. I use Bose QuietComfort 35 Bluetooth headphones for when I want real noise cancellation or when I'm on a flight, and AirPods when I'm getting around town (I currently live in New York City). I read on a Kindle Oasis – it's small and light, my favorite Kindle so far.

And what software?

I do all my high fidelity design work in Sketch, and I'll bounce around various prototyping tools (there always seems to be a new kid on the block). I sketch a ton on my iPad using GoodNotes. I've tried many sketching apps and GoodNotes is perfect for my particular use case. I use Spotify for music and Overcast for podcasts. I mostly use Bear for notes – it's also a nice Markdown editor and allows you to sort of codify how you organize things. It's neat.

For project management I use Basecamp on Mac and iOS, so all my work stuff is in there. I use Tweetbot for Mac mostly, but I'll also check Twitter.com from time to time, mostly for group DMs. I use Pocket as my read-it-later service, which is helpful when I want to clean up my open tabs. I'm still trying to find the perfect writing software..

What would be your dream setup?

Honestly, probably more minimal than what I have now. Just an iPad with the Apple Pencil and my laptop would be totally fine. Once you start getting used to more and more accessories you think you need them. I think I'd be just as productive with less.


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Helen Zaltzman


Helen Zaltzman

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Helen Zaltzman, I am a podcaster. I host and produce The Allusionist and Answer Me This.

Answer Me This began in my living room in suburban London in January 2007. I had no idea what I was doing – I had barely heard of podcasts, I hadn't listened to any, I'd never edited audio or run a website before or done anything relevant to podcasting, except talking, which is hardly a unique qualification. Ten years later, the show is still going, to my great surprise and wonder. In January 2015 I began the Allusionist, with the Radiotopia collective. It's an entertainment show about linguistics. No, really. And it's the greatest job I've ever had in my life.

What hardware do you use?

13" MacBook Pro, a couple of years old, slightly dented. It is hardworn. The trackpad stopped working a couple of months ago and I need to work on my laptop too much to send it off for the requisite two weeks to get it fixed, so I'm using an external Magic Mouse because audio editing without sideways scroll induces fury.

I record into a Zoom H6 recorder, usually through Audio Technica AT897 shotgun mics, one for me, one for the interviewee. Audio equipment is mostly pretty boring to look at, so I have red, blue and green mic cables to cheer up all the grey and black.

The earphones I use while editing audio are Superlux HD-662, which are cheap but way better than any other kind I've tried for hearing every horrid little flaw in my edit. They are pretty uncomfortable to wear because they squeeze my head tightly, keeping all the audio in. This is useful in a way, because when I have them on, I'm not having fun; I know I have to work. It's hard to have fun or faff around wasting time when my head is in a clamp.

The earphones I favour for listening to podcasts are Skullcandy Jib noise-isolating earbuds. When I'm on trips to the USA I stock up on these at Target. In fact I bought five pairs in a Target in Palm Springs just recently. They're $10 a pop, which allows for my habit of losing or breaking a pair every three months or so, and I buy them in different colours to give me some sense of the passage of time. They're good for not letting noise seep out of my ears, because I'm not a sociopath and don't want to annoy whoever's sitting next to me on the train; and the sound quality is ideal for my podcast subscriptions. I've tried other earbuds, but they couldn't handle Roman Mars's perfect sonorous tones in 99% Invisible, so obviously they had to go.

iPad mini. My favourite gadget of all time. I read and write on it a lot, particularly when I have insomnia and am lying in bed in the dark not wanting to wake up my husband by cranking open my laptop or rustling book pages. I think I'm using an iPad mini 3, which should be a couple of years old now but on November 9th 2016, having woken up to the news that Donald Trump was to be president of the USA, I dropped it on the floor at airport security and the screen smashed to splinters. The Apple store replaced it for free with a new one of the same vintage, which was very decent of them given that it wasn't their fault that Trump made me break my iPad.

If you're talking really old-fashioned hardware: Leuchtturm 1917 medium hardcover is my choice of notebook. With dotted pages. Lines or a grid are too prescriptive for my requirements, but the dots are useful for keeping my writing straight AND sketching out patchwork designs. Current Leuchtturm: turquoise. All-time best Leuchtturm: orange, but sometimes you can't go back to where you were once happy, eh?

Mostly I write or draw in the Leuchtturm with pens I have stolen from hotel rooms.

I keep an Oxford Concise Dictionary to hand to choose the randomly selected word that appears at the end of every episode of the Allusionist, and a charity shop Boggle set for spelling out the name of each episode.

And what software?

I edit my shows on Logic Pro X. I kind of hate it, but it's partly my fault for being resistant to understanding it. I just want tech to work without having to devote any brainspace to it.

Izotope plugins – the Dialogue De-Noiser is actually magic. Trint to transcribe interviews – then you can click on a piece of the text and it'll play you that part of the sound file, or vice versa. It has saved me a lot of hours of typing this past year.

Ecamm Call Recorder for taping voicemails and interviews via Skype, Audio Hijack for other online audio-ripping.

When I'm interviewing people, I'm paranoid that my Zoom recording will conk out, so I record a backup on my phone, using iTalk. If you're looking for a simple recording app, this is it. It's just a big red button, and has never failed me.

I use Dictionary.com's app and website every day, for etymological research and for the invaluable thesaurus function when I'm writing anything.

I use Google Drive for writing, spreadsheets, presentation slides, creating graphics.. I've effectively dumped my whole brain in there. I am fond of a spreadsheet, particularly the shared spreadsheets in which my husband and I plan road trips. Planning a road trip is almost as good as going on the road trip. Well, not almost, but at least 15% as good. Definitely 90% more fun than the spreadsheets with which I keep track of my finances.

Pocket. I send dozens of articles to Pocket every day, so now there are several thousand articles in Pocket waiting for some mythical stretch when I will have time to read them. Retirement?

Similarly, my podcast app is stuffed full of thousands of shows I want to listen to but haven't yet, because I'm working on my own shows most of the time. Retirement is going to be GREAT. (Haha I'm never going to be able to retire.) I love to listen to podcasts when I'm walking or on public transport, or in the show now that my husband bought a Bluetooth shower speaker. I use the Apple Podcasts app, which is glitchy but I'm too far down that road to turn back now. I also listen with Overcast, specifically for the shows I have to listen to for my monthly Podclub, where my husband, three friends and I each choose an episode of a show that has not previously been Podclubbed about, then meet up for dinner to discuss them. Podclub is my favourite fixture.

Being a podcaster is a solitary existence much of the time, so Slack is where most of my social interaction takes place. The Radiotopians are a delightful bunch of people, but all scattered geographically, so we get to hang out on Slack more than in real life. Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder and The West Wing Weekly is my regular late night Slack buddy. We're both insomniacs and work at appalling times of day (i.e. middle of the night), but him being awake at 3am in LA needing a second pair of ears on an episode he's finishing works fine when I'm in the UK and it's 11am. A couple of weeks ago, his Friday night pre-dinner entertainment was screen sharing with me trying to sort out a weird problem with the sound wave of my episode. It was 2am my time and I was desperate to get that episode done and released so I could go to bed. What a gent; thanks, Hrishi.

What would be your dream setup?

Having a job that is portable and allows/requires a lot of travel is pretty much my dream setup. I can carry all the equipment I really need in one bag: my microphones, Zoom, laptop. As long as I have a decent wifi connection, I can and do get my job done from hotels, Airbnbs, friends' couches, cafes, trains, museum cupboards, wherever..

That said: a couple of years ago I bought an amazing desk. It's a 1960s Danish piece, which at first glance looks like a boring teak cupboard. But when you open it – ta-da! Out slides a tabletop, drawers, shelves all around – and when you sit at it, it's like being in a little wooden room surrounded by my favourite dictionaries, toy dinosaurs, sewing equipment, microphones, all my stuff. Really it's a piece of furniture that represents the contents of my brain.

However. In the summer of 2016 my husband and I had to move out of the flat we'd been renting for ten years, and put all our possessions in storage while we figured out our next move. Fast forward through several kinds of tedious life bullshit, and nearly a year later we're still living in our temporary home of my brother's attic, with no new home yet, or even the prospect of one. We have no idea when we'll see our stuff again, or even in which city or country. It is OK, but I do miss the desk. My dream setup would be to park the desk discreetly in a corner of the 99% Invisible offices in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.


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Janet Echelman


Janet Echelman

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Janet Echelman. I'm an artist who makes soft, billowing sculpture at the scale of buildings​. They're choreographed by wind and light and shift from being an object you look at, to a living environment you can get lost in.

I started out as a painter based in Bali, Indonesia, where I studied ancient craft traditions and used them to address contemporary life and art.

After a decade painting, I went to India on a Fulbright​ and promised to give exhibitions around the country, so shipped my art supplies to begin work. When my paints went missing – ​I was forced to embrace unorthodox materials available in the local fishing village​, and began sculpting with fishing net methods​.​ This has led to some big surprises (including the Smithsonian​'s​ American Ingenuity Award, ​and ​​having Oprah ​put my art #1 on her "List of 50 Things That Make You Say Wow!"​). If you want the full story, I tell it in a TED talk ​called ​"Taking Imagination Seriously" ​which has now been translated into 35 languages​ and shared with millions.

What hardware do you use?

​I use ​an ​ultra-lightweight fiber ​(UHMWPE – Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) which is fifteen times stronger than steel, pound for pound. ​This is what tethered the Mars Rover, and it has enabled ​my sculpture to be so light that it can literally lace into​ a city's skyscrapers across streets and parks. I also use a fiber called PTFE (Poly-Tetra-Fluoro-Ethylene)​ which is used in astronaut's spacesuits and holds its color 100% against the sun's ultraviolet rays.​

And what software?

My art is designed with digital computer software ​that models each knot and twine segment, including its thickness, stiffness, and weight, and models it with the forces of gravity.

I also work with a tight-knit group of talented design colleagues in my studio, and an external team of brilliant aeronautical and mechanical engineers, lighting designers, computer scientists, architects, and industrial fabricators and artisans to make the artwork come to life.

What would be your dream setup?

My goal is to sculpt at the scale of the city, as a soft counterpoint to hard-edged buildings. I want to lace into the fabric of the city, attaching exclusively to pre-existing structures.


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