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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Julia Evans


Julia Evans

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Julia Evans. I write a blog about programming, where I talk about how stuff works and occasionally post fun software I wrote (did you know how relational databases work? They use btrees! Here's why, and how it works! It's really cool!) I also draw zines to explains topics that I am especially excited about and make some comics/drawings which I usually post at @b0rk.

Basically I think a lot of explanations of programming stuff are both unnecessarily boring and unnecessarily complicated. Often it's possible to explain even complicated things like operating systems in a simple way! So I try to explain interesting stuff to other developers like me in a way that makes sense, without dumbing it down or leaving out the important technical parts.

I really like to figure out how computer things work. I work as a software engineer at Stripe.

What hardware do you use?

I have a ThinkPad X230 and I like it. My choices about what to type on are pretty boring. I don't own a monitor or a mouse or a keyboard.

But I have a story about hardware for comics! I started drawing comics one day because my wrists hurt and I couldn't blog. It turns out that they're a good way to explain stuff even if you can literally only draw stick figures like me so I kept doing it. I started out by drawing comics about computers in Sharpie on paper! That was fun, but it's hard to erase Sharpie and cleaning up the photos was too much work and I am pretty lazy. Today I use either a Samsung Galaxy Tab, or a Samsung Chromebook Plus. It took me a long time to find the tablet of my dreams — the iPad & Apple Pencil are beautiful, but also incredibly expensive and, well, they don't run Android. It turns out that Samsung makes cheap Android tablets that you can draw on! A Chromebook Plus is half the price, runs both Linux and Android apps, and lets me go from programming to drawing a comic about computer networking in 60 seconds! The stylus is laggier and less magical than the Apple Pencil but the software is so much more useful to me that I don't mind.

I keep my spices in 32 125ml Mason jars and my beans & grains in 18 larger jars. It makes me happy to see dozens of jars in my kitchen every day.

And what software?

I write my blog in the Hugo static site generator. I commissioned a theme for it from my amazing friend Lea (who works on programming 3D knitting machines!!). When I want someone to review my writing, I use Google Docs. I code in Sublime Text or vim, and use git for everything. I don't really keep backups and most of the stuff I really need day-to-day is on my public github anyway. My shell is fish and I run Ubuntu 16.04 with Unity. I write Python, Go, Ruby, and Rust mostly. I've been using Linux on my personal computer for 13 years now so I'm pretty attached to it. This year I set up wireless printing on Linux and it only took like 40 minutes! We truly live in the future of Linux on the desktop 🙂

And Twitter! Twitter is so fun! I can write a comic about how /proc works on Linux, post it on Twitter, and within 24 hours a whole bunch of people have learned a new thing. It's an amazing way to put ideas and blog posts out there out there and find out what people like and get some quick feedback about what makes sense and what doesn't.

My coding/writing software choices are all pretty boring at this point. When I was a teenager in 2004-2005 I would spend so much time configuring my latest favorite minimal window manager because I had a laptop with 64MB of RAM (which my mom got me!! My mom is awesome and I am so happy she bought me computers to do weird software stuff on!) and it really was not gonna run GNOME. I also used Hacked Links as a web browser because Firefox was too slow. Now I am tired of configuring software (and I have a fast computer!!) and I would rather spend my spare time writing about amazing computer things I've learned than configuring Arch Linux 🙂 🙂

But software for drawing! People! Drawing software on tablets is weird. Here are some features I want to make drawings: (which are generally stick figures)

  • Make drawings ("notebooks") with more than one page and easily export to PDF
  • A tool that can make squares
  • The ability to easily change the pen size and then go back to the old size in less than a minute
  • Copy and paste parts of a drawing
  • Clone a notebook so I can edit the clone
  • Make any size canvas I want
  • Makes vector images

It turns out that most drawing tools don't let you have more than one page. (like Procreate on iPad and Infinite Design / Autodesk SketchBook on Android). When I started out, I would make them one page at a time and then manually rearrange them in the right order into a PDF. GoodNotes on iPad incomprehensibly does not have a tool that lets you make squares (you need to draw the square by hand and hope that the software magically recognizes that it was a square and straightens it up for you). Any given tablet drawing software seems to have some arbitrary subset of these features, but none of them have them all.

Anyway, I use Squid on Android and it's very very good. There are some weird gotchas — I have to pick from maybe 8 fixed canvas sizes and I can't add more (want 200 x 300 pixels? Too bad!!), and it's impossible to copy documents (if I want 2 versions of a 10-page document I can go page by page and copy each page one at a time).

I use it to draw small drawings that I put on Twitter, 20-pages zines (like about computer networking!) and slides for my talks. It's great.

What would be your dream setup?

I don't really like desks. I spend most of my time working on the couch, so I would like a couch that is good for my back. Also a tablet that has hardware as nice as the Apple Pencil but runs Android.


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Kitto Katsu


Kitto Katsu

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Kat, and by day I'm an IT project manager and business analyst. However, by night I create videos about anime figurines and other Japanese pop-culture items on YouTube as Kitto Katsu! I also run a website of the same name which has news, reviews and other announcements from the Japanese pop-culture scene, and administrate a website on collectibles called My Figure Collection.

What hardware do you use?

For my photography and videos I use a Canon EOS 650D/Rebel T4i with a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS lens, a pair of umbrella lights and a Vanguard Espod CX 233AGH tripod. On occassion I'll use a muslin backdrop if I want a more neutral background for the footage (like in this video and in most cases I'll use a plain old wooden coffee table and a G Tool Mr. Turn Table. I've also made a custom turntable for items that are too heavy for the rotating display. On occassion I'll use the F&V R-300 LED ring light, and a Mini Portable Photo Studio.

For editing I'll use my desktop computer with dual Nvidia cards running in SLI, and for recording audio I use a Blue Yeti mic with The Pop filter or the Zoom H4n Handy Recorder.

If I'm away from my equipment and need to take photos quickly for Twitter updates and whatnot, like for major events, I'll use my handy-dandy iPhone 6.

And what software?

Software-wise, for editing I swear by Sony Vegas Pro for video and Audacity for audio recording and editing. For editing photography I'll use Lightroom or quick edits will be done using GIMP.

Other than that, because most of what I do is social media based, naturally I use Facebook, Twitter and Wix for my website.

What would be your dream setup?

My dream setup would definitely be having a dedicated studio for recording and editing videos without being bothered or bothering anyone around. Which I am currently in the process of setting up, thankfully!

But as for products themselves, I'd be adding soundproofing foam, a bigger light tent, a better podcasting station to have guests visit and record in person, and on the other side of things, have a big enough travel bag to carry all the important equipment for recording interviews externally.

And if we're going total dream setup, a Canon 5D Mk IV and EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, and more lights in general.

If I could go as far as having anything, I suppose I'd happily ask for a full-time video editor as well! Haha.


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Darby Thomas


Darby Thomas

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hello, I'm a designer and illustrator in San Francisco. I spent three years making weird, fun stuff with Photojojo and Parabo Press. Now my day job is getting creators paid at Patreon. I'm increasingly getting more chill with calling myself a part-time political activist.

What hardware do you use?

The nerdiest thing about my digital setup is my Cherry MX keyboard with custom rainbow keycaps. I recently replaced my Bamboo tablet with Wacom's Intuos. Both those plug into my LG monitor.

What surprised me about activism is even in high-tech San Francisco an in-person conversation and a printed flyer is the best way to reach people. I hit the limit of what my Epson XP-640 inkjet printer could do and upgraded to the Canon MB2720 color laser printer and got the Canon PIXMA so I can do supertabloid prints. I picked up the cheapest 1" and 2.5" button makers you can get because omg people love pins! So if you're interested, you too can turn a corner of your junior one-bedroom apartment into a propaganda machine for about $500.

I'm a pretty frequent surfer and I have a 6'4" Modern Love Child surfboard. It's wide enough that I can teach my friends how to surf with it and short enough that I can stuff it into my hatchback.

And what software?

The switch from in-house designer to product designer was intersting. At Photojojo I'd be making goofy illustrations for pranks (like making a package smell like fresh baked cookies) in the morning, and then I'd be coding the frontend for a promotion in the afternoon. At Patreon I'm mostly in Sketch, Dropbox Paper, and Google Sheets.

Signal, Google Groups, and Google Drive are the apps that make organizing possible. I don't know how people did this stuff before.

What would be your dream setup?

This is pretty typical of someone in a city but more space. Right now I'm a few shelves and a desk away from feeling like I'm not drowning in stuff.


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Peter Bourgon


Peter Bourgon

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm a programmer, working mostly on backend and distributed systems, and mostly in the Go programming language. I've worked for Bloomberg, SoundCloud, and Weaveworks in a variety of backend roles; I'm currently working for Fastly, on the data infrastructure team. I'm also reasonably prolific in the world of open-source. My current projects include Go kit, a toolkit for microservices; and OK Log, a distributed and coördination-free log management system.

What hardware do you use?

I mostly use a 3-year-old MacBook Air 13". I use it about equally in cafés and restaurants around Berlin, and connected to a monitor at home or in a coworking space. It strikes the right balance of low weight, usable screen size, great battery life, and sufficient horsepower. I also have a corporate-issued MacBook Pro 13" that's permanently attached to my monitor at home: a sort of pseudo-desktop, with its own trackpad and keyboard. To be honest, I can't tell the difference.

I've got an iPhone 6, which I think is a bit too large and fragile; at the next opportunity, I'd like to switch to an SE. At home in my rather spartan flat in Mitte, I've got a Time Capsule and Airport Express driving my wi-fi network; I appreciate how low-maintenance and high-performance they both have been. That's basically the extent of my technology. I've spent enough time configuring and troubleshooting to deeply appreciate not needing to do it anymore.

And what software?

I use a pretty bone-stock Mac OS. For the vast majority of my day-to-day work, I use iTerm, Visual Studio Code, and Chrome. I also use Homebrew and Homebrew Cask to manage my applications; Dropbox to manage some of my files; f.lux to let me sleep at night; SizeUp to move my windows around; and Spotify and SoundCloud to listen to music. Finally, I owe DigitalOcean and Terraform a debt of gratitude: they're my one-two punch when I need more compute power for testing, benchmarking, or demos.

What would be your dream setup?

I suppose I think of "my setup" very broadly. Not only the specific tools I'm using to do my work, but also the context in which I do it: the state of my mind, my emotions, the city in which I live, and the people surrounding me. I'm very happy with where I am, now. With technology that never really feels burdensome to use; with friends and colleagues who complement me and challenge me to be a better person; and in a city that is at once accessible and transcendental, humane and larger-than-life, full of cafés where I can spend half a day hacking without guilt, full of people who are inspiring, earnest, and engaged in the shared social contract of humanity.

So I don't have a dream setup, really. I just want to keep interrogating, adjusting, and re-assessing all of these things, in a constant introspective conversation.

With that said, I'd love to have a laptop that was a little lighter and thinner than my Air, with a better, higher-resolution screen. Am I just describing the new MacBook? Maybe. Shame about the single USB-C port, though.


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Jem Selig Freeman


Jem Selig Freeman

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Jem Selig Freeman and I run a furniture design and manufacturing business called Like Butter. We make a whole range of our own furniture and other custom jobs that come our way. I trained as an Industrial Designer with very few skills, then formed the business with Laura Woodward (now married!) – she taught me to weld, and everything since has been self taught and developed on the job.

What hardware do you use?

An abbreviated list in order of current perceived importance: Multicam CNC Router, Lamello Zeta P2, SawStop Industrial Cabinet Saw, Festool ETS 150/5 sander, cheap eBay calipers, Tajima tape measure, Bose QuietComfort 25 headphones, iPad Pro, iPhone 6, unbranded workstation PC, twin 24" Dell IPS displays, Canon 7D. My all-time favorite PC keyboard is the Dell SK-8115.

And what software?

Chrome and Gmail because the emails are endless. Rhino 5 is our standard CAD package in the business – this started as a budgetary consideration but has since become our best friend for all drafting, designing and CNC preparation. For CNC programming we use EnRoute 5 and 6. SketchUp gets a look-in occasionally when I need to mock up an image for a client in a hurry.

On the iPad Pro I use Adobe Sketch for drawing and the iOS Notes app for organising my daily tasks and client meeting notes.

WorkFlowy and Slack form our task management and team communications package – they're both fantastic for managing a small team and 30-60 jobs per month. I use Adobe Lightroom to manage and edit product documentation.

What would be your dream setup?

It's almost there, really – I'm always pushing for less dust and more light, so I suppose the dream would be a clean-room with powerful centralised dust extraction and stacks of natural light through double glazed windows. A lush country paddock for morning tea and maybe a deaf workshop dog to play frisbee. More robots, always more robots, a wide belt thickness sander and some general assembly robotic arms.

All that said, the heart of Like Butter is the team – I'm really lucky to have found and been found by an awesome squad of talented individuals.


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Larry Crane


Larry Crane

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Larry Crane. I am the editor and founder (1996) of Tape Op Magazine; a mag about the art of recording music. I founded Jackpot! Recording Studio in 1997 and have produced, recorded, and mixed many artists, including Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, The Go-Betweens, She & Him, and many more. I am also a musician, and have made records and toured as a band member. I also do instructional videos about music recording and mixing for lynda.com.

What hardware do you use?

Many analog recording devices. A 32 channel Rupert Neve Designs 5088 console allows analog mixing and monitoring, even of digitally recorded music. I have three Otari tape decks set up for 24- and 16-track on 2-inch tape and a 1/4-inch deck for mixing to. I have BURL and Avid converters for taking the sound from analog to digital and back. A vintage EMT 140 plate reverb provides great effects. I have over 100 microphones of all types.

And what software?

I use Pro Tools 12 HD as it’s the most commonly used in music recording. I am a huge fan of iZotope RX5 which allows detailed sound restoration and editing. The Universal Audio UAD platform hosts some of my favorite plug-ins for mixing use.

What would be your dream setup?

After 20 years of running a commercial studio I feel I have surrounded myself with amazing tools. I wouldn’t mind a Pro Tools HDX system in order to cut out latency issues, but the cost is ridiculous and it also limits your system from running other DAW software, like Logic. Annoying. Buying and maintaining computer systems for a pro studio is frustrating and not very satisfying compared to buying and using quality analog gear, but it is how the marketplace works now.


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Kyle Kingsbury


Kyle Kingsbury

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name's Kyle Kingsbury, and for reasons I've never fully understood, machines around me tend to break down in unusual ways. I'm making the best of that curse by testing distributed systems to see whether they're safe. I introduce network partitions, clock skew, and other failures, and carefully observe the system I'm testing to see whether it loses data, makes stale or invalid data visible, or allows transactions to interleave improperly. I write reports and give talks on my research, and also offer consulting and training classes at companies and conferences.

In past lives I was a photographer, physics student, aikidoist, IT support person, network ops engineer, and backend developer. I've published some very minor research in Physical Review Letters on chaos in nonlinear quantum systems. I blog about software and wrote some open source projects, like Riemann. I've also made woodcuts, websites, 3D renderings, shirts, short stories, furniture, music, books.. and just finished making a lamp last week. I like creating things, even it's just as an amateur!

What hardware do you use?

The safety analysis work I do is CPU and memory intensive, and readily parallelizable. Comcast gave me an OSS research grant to build a machine for that work, so my desktop is a ridiculous 48-way Xeon (2x E5-2697v2), with 128GB of ECC DDR3 and 11 TB of miscellaneous SSDs & spinning rust. The motherboard is wonky and refuses to find half the disks on boot. You can crash the box by using certain USB ports. We have a complicated relationship.

There's definitely a trade-off between performance and being locked into a tiny set of weird motherboards that support that kind of hardware. I don't necessarily recommend it unless you like being the kind of person who opens their case every few weeks, muttering "what is it THIS time" under their breath.

I use a standard layout Das Keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches, and cannot believe that I'm the sort of person who cares about that. Maybe it comes with being a Vim user. There are no labels on the keycaps (it was the only model they had on sale) which means it takes me forever to type passwords — and every time I use Mutt is a game of Russian Roulette. I use a Logitech G5 laser mouse, which may be the closest to the Platonic ideal pointing device as it is possible for late-stage capitalism to produce.

My display is a 32-inch 4k Dell — I think it's a UP3216Q. It's a wonderful screen for editing photographs and for rendering lots of xterms, which, let's face it, is 90% of my computing life.

I sometimes shoot with a Nikon D700, which has spectacular autofocus and low-light performance — but when traveling I prefer my D7000 with a 28-300mm Nikkor. It's lighter, offers better resolution, and that lens is incredibly versatile. I really like Nikon's ergonomics, though most of my photo friends shoot with Canon.

Some of my talk slides are drawn using Sakura technical pens and Whitelines grid notebooks. I take photos with my phone or camera on a tripod, and clean them up in GIMP. That process doesn't work well for color work or for editing on planes before the talk, so I've moved to an iPad Air 2 with the Paper app and Pencil stylus. It's honestly kind of a pain — the stylus is unreliable and palm rejection doesn't work, so I have to redraw things a whole bunch. But the flexibility, and being able to spit out a PDF with a few taps is great.

And what software?

I run Debian (hi Jess!). It's mostly stock except for ZFS, and using OpenBox+GKrellM+xfce-panel as my window manager. I love having virtual workspaces and configurable bindings for everything. I use irssi for IRC, Mutt/Geary for mail, Chromium for browsing, and Pidgin for IM. I edit photos in darktable and The GIMP, and do my vector work in Inkscape. Morganastra sold me on the Fish shell a few years ago and I've never looked back.

I'm hopelessly reliant on middle-click-paste. Laptop trackpads drive me nuts. This is entirely my own fault.

Every so often I try to become a Normal Computer User so I can spend less time futzing with my weird tools, try OS X for a week, and give up. At this point I live in perpetual, mild trepidation that the people who maintain the Galapagos island of software I rely on will stop caring, stranding me in desktop Linux limbo.

I have a terrible memory and need to see everything on the screen at once, or I'll forget! So when I'm writing software I live in six to twelve gnome-terminals. Most are running Vim, editing the different namespaces I'm calling through at that time. Then there's usually a clojure repl, and a test runner that automatically reloads and runs tests when I write files to disk. Maybe a window for git commands and running various tools.

I think I learned this way of working from my Dad, who's a UNIX hacker — works on filesystems, operating systems, that kind of thing. We were chatting about work setups last year, and even though he works in C and I'm using this high-level functional Lisp, we still use the same tools. We both have poor memories and have to see the whole call stack laid out across the screen in order to reason about a program! I see people program in one window on a laptop sometimes, and that just seems like… some kind of code sorcery! Must be cool.

Aphyr.com is a big mass of custom Ruby+Sinatra running on a Linode. Jepsen.io is a Clojure site, running on Skyliner. The articles are written in Markdown and preprocessed with Pandoc. There's a lot of LaTeX in my life, come to think of it.

There are a bunch of miscellaneous Clojure, Ruby, and Perl scripts for various things too. You know those movies — like, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, or Wallace and Gromit — where they pan through an inventor's household and they have all these ridiculous gizmos for making eggs and answering the phone? That's kinda what my ~/bin is like. There are daemons for taking ZFS snapshots and backing things up to my NAS and S3. Keeping SSH reverse tunnels open. Scripts for tearing apart PDFs, adding my signature to a page, and stitching them back together again. Spinning up clusters of Debian nodes in LXC for Jepsen tests. Setting the color of the lights in my living room by generating color schemes and downloading them from websites. Rsyncing my phone's photos to an SFTP drop. There's a daemon on aphyr.com that parses email describing current prices in EVE Online's market, loads that into sqlite, and uses a hilarious n-way self-join to pathfind efficient trading routes. Compute Goldberg machines everywhere.

What would be your dream setup?

I'm sure there's an upper limit to the number of xterms I can reasonably have in front of me, but I don't think I'm anywhere near it yet. A 50" curved display might be nice? Also I'd like keys with labels on them, so you could tell what buttons will, say, mark an email as unread vs delete the entire thread and forward jockstrap selfies to your clients.

Also a computer which turns on reliably and doesn't crash when you plug in a keyboard. Maybe I'm setting unrealistic goals here.

On the software front, I'm still hunting for a good email client. Geary's typography is confusing, Mutt is nice but I really like being able to see prior emails while composing a new one, and Thunderbird crashes every ten minutes. I'd also like better color management in Linux, but I can't even begin to characterize how the current setup is broken.

I'm also blowing enough money on AWS clusters these days that it might be cost-effective to build a physical 5-node cluster for Jepsen testing in my apartment. That'd be pretty swell, because LXC containers all share the same clock, which keeps me from testing clock skew locally.


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James Primate


James Primate

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hello! My name is James Primate and I am a musician, video game developer and general internet basement art type person. For music, I'm mainly known for Bright Primate, a chiptune/vocal duo with my writing partner Lydia, as well as some assorted video game soundtrack work. As for game development stuff, in 2013 I co-founded a little company called Videocult with the lovely artist / programmer Joar Jakobsson for the purposes of making our current project (and white whale) Rain World, published by Adult Swim Games for PS4, PC, whatever.

What hardware do you use?

Odds and ends mostly! For ye olde chiptune music band I use a collection of repurposed old Nintendo Game Boys that have been customized for better sound quality and backlit for visibility on stage. I also use a number of iPads for performance, either for live-triggering samples or as touch based synthesizers, etc. Lydia uses a TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch 2 for live vocal effects. Little of my music performance gear is what one would consider a proper musical instrument, though I do have a microKORG XL keyboard that I use for coding and the occasional melody line.

For game music and sound design it's a fairly boring array of low spec laptops, cheap MIDI keyboards and old iPads. I have an 17" Asus X750JB laptop that I use for the bulk of my audio production work, and it serves my purposes just fine. My go-to MIDI keyboard is a Novation Launchkey 49, which I have surprisingly strong feelings for considering it's a generic plastic thing you can find anywhere. I got that one specifically because it can work off of USB power, so doesn't need cables or batteries beyond just the USB input itself, AND it works perfectly when plugged into iPads, which is awesome and rare for something with so many keys!

Speaking of which, I use iPads and iPhones a ton these days for synths and audio waveform manipulation. There's so many strange and interesting iPad music creation apps and tools that are out there these days! When I was coming up it was all about weird VST programs that you'd find on some Russian guys website late at night, but now that culture seems to have all moved over to the App Store, which is pretty awesome. I really need to get some new iPads though, as my 2s aren't doing so hot these days.

I have a collection of keyboards and hardware synths, but mostly they just collect dust I'm afraid! Same goes for the assorted guitars and such, though I do have a Korean-made Kraken brand 8-string electric that I've used for sound effects and the occasional lush chord or plinky plink where necessary. For field recording and random audio capture I use a Zoom H4n Pro which is much nicer than I deserve considering I mostly use it to record the sound of dirt being crunched under a boot or various bits of metal junk being smacked together.

As for video game production (AKA my real job), up until a few days ago I had mostly been using the same old Asus X750JB laptop from above and had been feeling pretty smug about it. I'm kind of anti-gear, like "you don't need expensive equipment to make art!" sort of philosophy, so having a workman-like middle of the road laptop appeals to me on that level. But right now I'm working on the TV trailer for Rain World under a super tight deadline and the limited spec GPU and RAM of that workman-like laptop just couldn't handle dealing with the high quality 60fps 1920×1080 video capture or editing! It was awful! Would crash even just when scrubbing through the clips! So I ran out (literally), rushed to MicroCenter and picked up this horrible ugly monstrous abomination of a gaming laptop, and despite all my silly pretensions I totally absolutely love it. It's an Asus Predator 17 (lol) and it eats raw video for breakfast, spits out 4k renders like it's nothing. I'm hereby converted. It's got super tacky backlit red keys and is so obviously styled like Optimus Prime's codpiece, lmao. I feel like I need to go out and get a Call of Duty hoodie to complete my ascension.

And what software?

For hardware chiptune on Game Boys I use a program called Little Sound DJ (LSDJ for short), which is a synthesizer and sequencer built into a Game Boy cartridge.

For general audio stuff and sound design I use Cockos REAPER for my music DAW (note: I believe this blog interviewed one of the creators of Reaper, right?). I really love Reaper. The workflow is so easy and unfussy, it's updated constantly with new features, plus it's vastly cheaper than anything remotely comparable. Because of how lightweight it is and the way you can nest tracks I usually have an entire soundtrack saved to one single project file! I even can drop in video to use as a guide to help tighten up SFX timings, or line-up music cues for videos, etc. REAPER does it all!

I use a ton of interesting iPad apps for music and sound design that I definitely want to shout out, as I feel like people never talk about app music tools. First and foremost is Samplr, which is a live waveform manipulation tool, so you can literally grab the waveform of the audio with your fingers and manipulate it, outputting all manner of wild sounds. I also love Moog Music's Animoog synth, which is a super deep motion synth that also has a similar touchscreen component where you can manipulate the envelops and timbres using all 10 fingers, and give some stunningly nuanced sounds when used cleverly. Waldorf's Nave is another synth app that gets used a ton and I couldn't do without. I have had a number of Waldorf's hardware synths, such as the Blofeld and even an old Microwave (real synth nerd stuff), and the Nave blows them away, IMHO.

With the iPad you have so much more processing power at your disposal compared to some purpose-built hardware keyboard, plus menu-diving is a breeze on the large iPad touchscreen compared to some cheesy half inch tall LCD display with buttons and a knob. I could probably go on for hours about music apps, but for the sake of some semblance of brevity I want to do a final shout-out to my favorite app, e-l-s-a, which is a super novel loop-based sample synth that makes some hauntingly beautiful sounds from rubbish audio capture, and that's what I love!

For gamedev my personal workflow is mostly on bespoke software, editors and devtools that Joar wrote specifically for Rain World, but beyond that it's fairly standard stuff: Unity, Microsoft Visual Studio, Adobe CS stuff like Photoshop, Illustrator, Director, etc. For video work I'm using Magix Vegas Pro 14 (used to be called "Sony VEGAS").

What would be your dream setup?

As mentioned before I'm pretty indifferent to gear so I don't have much in the way of dream equipment or aspirations in that direction (other than maybe a Roli Seaboard at some point), but being comfortable and quiet is key for me. I have pretty sensitive hearing, so I like to have some white noise in the background to cover up the assorted noises of the outside world. Also ideally this would be in a location where there is a good variety of food a walkable distance away; long enough to where one can think things over on the way but close enough to where it wouldn't interrupt the day to take a food break. Basics!


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