From time to time, people ask me for an inventory of the tools and systems I use to get my work done. As a hard-traveling, working writer, I spend a lot of time tinkering with my tools and systems. At the risk of descending into self-indulgence (every columnist’s occasional privilege), I’m going to try to create a brief inventory, along with a wish/to-do list for the next round.
First, the hardware:
Laptop: Thinkpad X200. This is the next-to-most-recent version of Lenovo’s ThinkPad X-series, their lightweight travel notebooks. The X200 is fast enough that it never feels slow, and like all ThinkPads, is remarkably rugged and easy to do small maintenance chores upon. I bought mine in the UK but I prefer a US keyboard; I ordered one of these separately and did the swap in 20 seconds flat without every having done it before. I bought my own 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM separately (manufacturers always gouge on hard drives and memory) and installed them in about five minutes. Lenovo bought the ThinkPad line from IBM in 2005, but IBM still has the maintenance contract, through its IBM Global Services division. For $100 or so a year, I was able to buy an on-site/next-day hardware replacement warranty that means that when anything goes wrong with the laptop hardware, IBM sends a technician out to me the next day, with all the necessary replacement parts, no matter where I am in the world. I’ve been using ThinkPads since 2006 and have had occasion to use this maintenance contract three times, and all three times I was favorably impressed (lest you think three servicings in four years is an indicator of poor hardware quality, consider that every other brand of computer I’ve carried for any length of time became fatally wounded in less than a year).
I have two different batteries for the ThinkPad: a 9-cell that weighs 1.4 pounds, and a little 4-cell that weight a mere 10 oz. I only use the 9-cell while traveling: it’s good for 5+ hours, even while powering a wireless link. When I’m at home, I spare myself the additional weight by switching to the 4-cell, which makes my daily walk to and from the office a lot more comfortable for my aching lumbar. The 4-cell’s only good for an hour or two, but I’m rarely away from a power-outlet for longer than that while at home.
I have a dock for the ThinkPad at the office, connected to a generic Sanyo monitor and a truly stupendous Datamancer hand-made steampunk keyboard (http://datamancer.net – go look. Drool. Then come back). I also have a Logitech Anywhere MX mouse, which is the first mouse I’ve used in years that really excited me: very precise, great ergonomics, and a wheel that you can unclutch so that it spins freely, making it easy to get to the bottom of a long file. It’s also very satisfying, a little whee every time you send it whizzing. The dock also has a DVD/CD drive (the superportable ThinkPad models don’t – I don’t miss it.)
I also have a backup drive at the office: just a generic full-height 500GB drive that was cheap on Amazon. I also have a little USB-powered generic 500GB 9mm SATA drive that I travel with. When I’m at home, I backup to the full-size drive every day when I sit down at my desk; on the road, I run the backup over breakfast.
Wish list: Lenovo’s just shipped the X201: faster, with a touchpad. Want. Don’t need it in any meaningful way, but I am Pavlovian about upgrade paths. Can’t wait for the fast, low-power-draw solid state drives to get up to 500GB, the minimum size for my needs.
Phone: I’ve got a Google/HTC NexusOne, and like Tim Berners-Lee, I can solemnly declare that I hate this phone less than any other phone I’ve ever owned. I rooted the phone, following simple instructions I found online, and now I can use it as a modem for my laptop, which is insanely awesome, especially on book-tours and at conferences where 4,000 geeks have saturated the hotel’s net connection. I have SIMs with unlimited data-plans for T-Mobile US and Orange UK, and switch depending on which country I’m in. The NexusOne also comes with turn-by-turn satellite navigation and a Google Maps app that factors in local traffic data. As such, it has enabled me to save $10-15/day when traveling by omitting the GPS for the rental car. Unlike its predecessor, the G1, the NexusOne is fast enough to run the stellar Android operating system.
Now, onto the local software:
Operating system: I’m using Ubuntu, a version of the free and open GNU/Linux operating system that is designed to be easy to use and maintain for non-techy people. I was once a Unix sysadmin, but it has been a long time, and I wouldn’t hire me to do it today. Ubuntu Just Works. I recently had cause to install Windows XP on an old ThinkPad and found that it was about a hundred times more complicated than getting Ubuntu running. When I transitioned to Ubuntu from the MacOS, I had a week or two’s worth of disorientation, similar to what happened after we renovated the kitchen and changed where we kept everything. Then the OS just disappeared, and it has stayed disappeared, breaking in ways that are neither more severe nor more frequent than any other OS I’ve ever used.
The only times Ubuntu asserts itself as a artifact (rather than as invisible plumbing) is when it is impressing me with spectacular Just Workingness. For example, Ubuntu’s facility for finding and installing apps easily also means that when you migrate to a new computer (something I do every 8-12 months), you can just feed the new Ubuntu installation an automatically generated list of all the programs you run and it will quietly and efficiently install all of them and get them configured. Another example: Ubuntu’s support for 3G wireless modems is vastly superior to the experience on the Mac and under Windows, where the 3G drivers are commercial and typically supplied by the cellular companies. These proprietary drivers come with all kinds of crapware and like to throw up big splashy screens announcing that you have connected to the Internet (with an implied string of exclamation points: !!!!!!!), which gets old the bazillionth time you plug in the modem to get directions or check e-mail. By contrast, Ubuntu uses its own, pre-installed drivers that Just Work: plug in a modem, and it asks you which country you’re in and which carrier you’re on. Then it sets up the modem, perfectly, every time I’ve tried it. It’s astounding.
E-mail: I live in e-mail. It’s probably a generational thing, but I can’t understand the received wisdom that the next generation of computer users prefers IM to e-mail. For me, e-mail is a powerful organizing force, a 1.5 million-piece archive that represents my entire professional and personal history. Old versions of stories, letters to friends, commercial orders – if it’s not in my e-mail archive, I don’t know it.
I use Thunderbird, an industrial-strength local e-mail client that’s free and open, overseen by the Mozilla Foundation, best known for their Firefox browser. I find the spam filtering tolerably good, and I augment it by automatically adding every e-mail address I reply to to my address book, then using a filter to automatically color e-mail from my past correspondents green, so that I can see at a glance if there’s anything in my junk folder from someone I’ve previously traded e-mails with. I also color e-mails blue if they’re from strangers where I’m the ‘‘To’’ address (as opposed to a CC), which is a good way of quickly spotting personal e-mails as opposed to spam from PR people.
I store my archived e-mails in nested folders: Friends (2010, 2009, 2008…), Boing Boing (2010, 2009, 2008…), Commerce (2010, etc), Speaking Gigs/Travel, Activism, Writing (General, then subfolders for each book and each magazine that I regularly write for). I file both sent and received mails, doing it routinely through the day.
I access my e-mail through an SSH tunnel, which is handy for contexts where the networks block access to my SMTP server, and it keeps my messages private from local snoops. There’s a cron job (a regularly scheduled task) that checks every minute or two to make sure the tunnel is up, and if it isn’t, it restarts it (because I lose the tunnel every time I change network connections).
On the mobile side, I use an open/free Android POP client called K-9 mail. It’s a little primitive – it could use better filtering and status indicators, and it’s a huge pain in the ass to undelete an accidentally deleted message with. But it’s OK. I have it set to POP my server but not delete messages unless I delete them on the device too. My pattern is to use the phone to check (but usually not to reply to) mail between laptop sessions. I delete anything dumb or spammy (so I don’t have to delete it again on the laptop). K-9 is smart enough to clear local caches of the messages once they’ve been downloaded to the laptop and deleted from the server.
Wishlist: I dream of a faster, more robust search for Thunderbird. I have so much useful and important info in my archived e-mail, but Thunderbird is slow and poky when it comes to searching through all those millions of messages. I also miss the days when I ran my own local IMAP server on my laptop and used several e-mail clients to access it, which let me use one client for spam-filtering, another for blog-business, another for search and another for reading, while IMAP kept it all in synch. I gave it up because all those multiple copies of my e-mail corpus overflowed my hard drive. I’ve got 8GB of e-mail archives now, and keeping 4 or 5 copies of them would probably be more do-able than it was several years ago.
Browser: I use Firefox, along with a small group of very useful plugins: CustomizeGoogle, which lets me see more search results (100 at a time), with miniature thumbnails for each; Linky (which lets me open a lot of links at once in multiple tabs, useful for articles that have been divided into multiple sections); and TinEye, an image search tool that helps me find the original version of images that I’ve located in anonymous corners of the web (great for making sure I credit the right source in a blog post). I also live and die by TabMix Plus, which gives me much more control over my tabs, including the vital ‘‘Unclose tab’’ function that lets me re-open a tab that I closed in haste. I like systems with forgiveness in them – they’re much more human than systems that expect inhuman perfection.
I have a couple hundred sites in a folder that I open as a series of tabs a couple times a day, quickly zipping through them after they’ve loaded to see if anything new has been posted.
Calendar: Thunderbird again. I love electronic calendars and my database of appointments goes back to the early 1990s (very handy for looking up that restaurant I loved that time I was in Baltimore). I have yet to find a good way to synchronize my calendar with a mobile device, mostly because every calendar vendor has decided that all calendar entries should be time-zone-dependent, so if you’re in London when you key in a 5PM flight, the computer ‘‘helpfully’’ switches that to 12PM when you change the system clock to New York time. I’ve got Thunderbird’s calendar set to keep all its times in London time no matter where I am, but as soon as I synch it with a mobile device, the device tries to reset all my times.
Wishlist: I want a simple way to share calendars without worrying about timezones – if an item says ‘‘Cory’s on a 1200h flight,’’ the person I’m sharing with should be able to know, with total certainty, that the ‘‘1200h’’ means ‘‘1200h in the timezone Cory is in.’’ This would make coordinating with my wife, my publishers’ publicists, and my travel assistant vastly simpler. Dammit.
RSS: I use Liferea, which isn’t a great reader, but is OK. It’s a lot faster than it used to be, but it has a slow, nonfunctional search and has no way to go back to the last item I zipped past too quickly. I’ve got a couple thousand RSS feeds, but I don’t try to read them all, just whir past them skimming for interesting keywords.
Wishlist: I dream of having an RSS reader that will archive everything in every RSS feed I’ve ever read, and let me search it, fast, on my own hard drive. ZOMG. Drool. All that personalized corpus, in hyperlinked, cached, high-availability low-latency glory.
Office suite: I use the free/open OpenOffice.org. Mostly I use the spreadsheet program to keep my personal books, using linked spreadsheets I’ve been tweaking since I first incorporated in the early 1990s. My accountant likes them so well that she often asks if she can share blank sets with her other clients. I enter receipts daily, and go through the activity on my bank account every morning and check for anomalies.
I sometimes use the OOo word-processor, usually to do light formatting or for business correspondence.
Writing: I use a plain-jane text editor that comes with Ubuntu called Gedit. It doesn’t do anything except accept text and save it and let me search and replace it. There were a few text-wrangling features in BBEdit on the Mac that I miss, but not very much. I like writing in simple environments that don’t do anything except remember what words I’ve thought up. It helps me resist the temptation to tinker with formatting. I also use Gedit to compose blog-posts for Boing Boing, typing the HTML by hand, which is an old habit from the early 1990s. I do use syntax coloring to help me spot unclosed tags, but apart from that, I don’t use any automated tools.
Scripts: I have a few small utility scripts that I run from the command line as part of my daily life: there’s a backup script that uses rysnc (a secure and smart free incremental backup script), another rsync script that uses ImageMagick (a free image manipulation library) to resize and upload images that I’ve saved to the desktop. A reader created a Firefox bookmarklet for me that automatically creates an attribution link to Flickr pages, which is useful when crediting Creative Commons licensed art I’ve pulled for use on Boing Boing.
I’ve written here before about Flashbake, the version-tracking program that Thomas Gideon created – it saves a snapshot of all my writing work every 15 minutes, along with the last three songs I’ve played, the last three posts I put on Boing Boing, my current location and timezone, and a few other environmental factors.
Other: I have a few other pieces of habitual utility software. I use the GIMP for image manipulation; digiKam for image organizing and Flickr uploading; Ksnapshot for sophisticated screenshotting, Banshee as a media player, VLC for videos (I sometimes put a small VLC window in one corner of my screen with my daughter’s cartoons and she’ll sit on my lap and watch while I do e-mail or blogging, and we can each point to interesting things in each others’ windows and talk about them, which is golden).
Finally, online services:
My personal blogs all run on WordPress, and I pay Mike Little, a freelance WordPress administrator, to do a little tinkering here and there with them. Recently, we installed eShop, which lets me sell my Random House Audio audiobooks as MP3s directly from the web. It’s clunky but it gets the job done and it’s free, and everything else was clunky and expensive.
Boing Boing runs on a very customized Movable Type, supported by one full-time managing editor, a part time sysadmin and a contract programmer.
I use The Pirate Bay’s IPREDator proxy service, which costs €5/month and is unlimited: by sending all my traffic through IPREDator’s servers, I encrypt it in such a way that local snoops can’t read it. IPREDator was created in response to Sweden’s Draconian Internet surveillance law (IPRED – the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive) which imposes a duty on ISPs to spy on their users in case they’re infringing copyright. IPRED stores no logs, and moves all traffic to the much-more-privacy-respecting Denmark before passing it on.
There are plenty of little bits and pieces I’m omitting – Seesmic for Twitter on Android; the cheapie Brookstone portable battery charger I’m trying out on this trip, the Ubuntu bootable maintenance USB stick I’ve got in my bag. But getting into every single little finicky detail would fill a book and go from self-indulgent to soporific, so I’ll wrap it up here.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
From the July 2010 issue of Locus Magazine