The first in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly
Friends, family and colleagues are frequently asking my advice on what kind of devices and software I find most useful. So following in the tradition of Bernard Pivot and subsequently the Actor’s Studio, and sites like LifeHacker, Supersite for Windows, and many others, I’ve borrowed a handful of standard “get-to-know-you” type of questions that others might find helpful.
Keep in mind that given an infinite budget, I’d have quite a bit more or possibly be using something slightly different or more recent, but the following are things I actually use on an almost daily basis. I also have a large handful of occasional devices and tricks that are not included in the list for brevity.
Fifty years from now, this list should also be fairly entertaining to reread.
Samsung Galaxy S III
Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431; I’m enamored of the fact that the operating system lives on a small internal SSD for incredibly fast boot times.
I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC. I have a multi-boot set up on a 10″ Asus EeePC with XP, Windows 7, JoliOS (flavor of Linux), and a multi-boot set up on an HP desktop with XP, Vista, Windows 7, and the latest Ubuntu Linux.
I haven’t found a reason to really upgrade from the Microsoft Office 2007 Small Business suite of tools including Word, Excel, and Outlook, which I use on a regular basis, but I’ve seriously been considering getting Office 365 Home Premium. For the bulk of my writing though, I usually eschew Word and use WinEdt as a text editor/user interface in combination with a MiKTeX installation and Adobe Acrobat to typeset in LaTeX – the output is simply glorious. Lately I’ve also been working at rolling git version control into the mixture with Bitbucket. I use a variety of online storage solutions in addition to Google Drive and SkyDrive Pro, but my primary account is on Dropbox which does an excellent job of syncing files across platforms as well as sharing document with others. I generally use it by way of their Windows integrated application which makes for a very seamless workflow. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook. But I also have a well-exercised Gmail account for sifting most of my social media accounts, as well as a lot of bacon and spam.
Internet and communications
For web browsing, I use the latest version of Google Chrome typically to the exclusion of all others. For instant messaging and video chat I use either Skype or Google Hangouts depending on the others involved, though I generally prefer Hangouts. I obviously use WordPress, but also have a few sites running Drupal as well. I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality and this seems to be more than enough. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.
Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise. I bounce back and forth between free versions of Pandora and Spotify, though I tend to spend much more time on Spotify lately. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync to my Android devices.
Video: Netflix is the primary video service I use on an almost daily basis, though Amazon Prime’s streaming services is a fairly close second. Given the general availability of the content I want to watch, I find it rare to need to purchase any video content on any other platforms. I don’t often rip DVD’s, but when I do, I love Handbrake, which seems to be the sine qua non in the area.
Books: I have such a complicated set up with regard to ebooks, it will take an entire post to cover it all. In simplest terms, I manage everything through a well-integrated combination of Calibre, Goodreads.com, Amazon’s Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, Adobe Acrobat Reader, DJView, and Dropbox. Most books I get are either purchased through Amazon or are borrowed from a litany of local public libraries. I’ve spent the last several years converting almost all the reading I do to electronic reading. I still prefer to read on paper, but the overall process is much simpler in digital.
Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m currently on a short hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s a truly lovely service. I also often use the Overdrive service through several local libraries for downloading and listening to audiobooks. While Overdrive is clunky and smothered in DRM, it works and is just good enough, and I’ve yet to find anything better that is free. When necessary, I’ll also borrow CD’s from the local library for listening as well.
Photos: I generally do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos, but what little effort I do put forth goes into both Google+ Photos with Picasa or into the auto-backup feature in Dropbox.
Other applications and utilities
Android Phone/Tablet apps
My favorites and most often used include: Waze, Evernote, Foursquare, Google Hangouts, DoubleTwist, Amazon Kindle, OverDrive Media, Audible, Facebook, Pocket, Netflix, Coursera Companion, Instagram, Path, Starbucks, Key Ring, Dropbox, Mailbox, Pandora, Flipboard. There are others, but I rarely use many of them.
I’m using a Samsung Series 5, 40″ LCD flatscreen. Though there are certainly much newer models out there, this really has everything I could want and supplies a fantastic picture as well as even native sound. Until the mansion arrives, or California housing prices drop precipitously, this is probably more television than I even need. For service, though I also pay for Comcast cable (just to get internet service), I only use DirecTV which, though I desperately love, I have a feeling I’ll eventually dump it to live a complete cord-cutter life.
In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR, I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast. Though I enjoy the Roku, the user interface could be much better. The Chromecast gets far more daily use, particularly for Netflix integration (via either a tablet or cell phone) and in my mind is the clear winner for being drop-dead easy-to-use. I particularly love the fact that the Chromecast automatically turns on the television and changes the internal television tuner, so I don’t need to pick up other devices to control the television. I’ll also frequently use a mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television as well.
- Coffee: I’m not a total fiend in this department and usually prefer soda or tea, but when necessary, a simple Bodum French press in combination with a Kitchen Aide coffee grinder are just lovely.
- Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
- Soda maker: At the beginning of the year, I got a SodaStream and have been making my own carbonated beverages. Nothing is really quite as good as a Coke or a Dr. Pepper, but it’s been more creative and entertaining than pursuing my old habits.
- Scale: I believe Fannie Farmer irreparably destroyed much of what could have been some superb American cuisine and any semblance of science in the kitchen, so I avidly use my Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Electronic Kitchen Scale to begin the healing.
- Thermometers: Among many others I primarily rely on a Maverick CT-03 Oil & Candy Digital Thermometer and a CDN DSP1 Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer.
Free-form Broad Questions
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
Calibre – For my 2000+ ebooks, this is an indispensable e-book and document program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality.
Waze – When living in Los Angeles, this real-time traffic application often saves me anywhere from 30-90 minutes of time in traffic a day; it also has the side benefit of helping you explore parts of the city you might not find otherwise.
DoubleTwist – Since I’m an avid Android fan, I use this simple app to dovetail my music and video collections in iTunes to sync with my other digital devices.
What’s your workspace setup like?
For the past couple of years I’ve been using a 1962 McDowell & Craig executive tanker desk that I refinished in 2008 and I use a matching chair which I painstakingly reupholstered by hand in late 2013. I often use the custom made glass top with dry-erase markers to sketch out ideas or write disposable notes and also place photos and incunabula of various sorts underneath it. I’ve been tempted to do a standing desk but as yet haven’t. I’m half tempted to follow the lead of film editor Walter Murch and set my desk up on cinder blocks to jack it up to waist level.
What’s your best time-saving/shortcut/life hack?
It’s probably not the best, but at the beginning of the New Year, I had read some material about slimming down my wallet, which had gotten a bit out of control, and though it hasn’t been a major life-changer, the subtle differences have improved my daily life and workflow as a result. Using the android app Keyring or the Google Wallet app has helped significantly in reducing the amount of plastic I carry in my wallet. Everyone should have at least 10 library cards, but no one should have to carry them in their wallet (or on their keychain).
What’s your favorite to-do list manager?
I primarily use a very customized version of Outlook and its task functionality to track my to do list items, but I’m also progressively using Evernote for some tasks. I’ve lately taken to using Evernote as my commonplace book.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
My Kindle Fire 7″ HD is indispensable and I primarily use it only for reading as well as the occasional Netflix screening. I’ve also had some great experiences lately with my new Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag and my Zojurishi Travel Mug – I don’t know how I managed without them before.
For education purposes (primarily lectures), I am absolutely in love with my Livescribe Pulse Pen. I own three different versions. Every student on the planet should have one.
I could maybe live without them, but I’ve had a 30 year love affair with my Pentel 0.5mm and 0.7mm mechanical pencils, and they’ve literally lasted that long.
What do you listen to while you work?
Most often, lately, it’s been concert music from the past 500 years as well as some jazz work I’ve been exploring. I’ve lately been re-exploring the late 70’s and early 80’s music which I missed in my very early youth. Often I’ll also sample material friends and colleagues are listening to which is relatively easy on both Pandora and Spotify.
What are you currently reading?
Generally I’m actively reading 4-5 books at a time and less-actively up to 15 or so. I use Goodreads.com to manage my reading lists, to find recommendations from others, and in part to catalog my library (though I’m far from having everything I own there). I usually tend toward non-fiction, science, math, history and biography when reading for pleasure, though the occasional fiction piece will work its way into the stack. I’m a sucker for great youth literature.
Because of my commuting habits, I’ve also taken to listening to audiobooks and particularly course titles from The Learning Company’s Great Courses Series over the past several years. They’re not only educational, but they’re almost always very entertaining.
My specific active reading list right now includes:
- Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
- Solving Mathematical Problems: A Personal Perspective by Terence Tao
- The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting by Alan Greenspan
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
- Information and Life by Gerard Battail
And I’m currently listening to:
- The Italian Renaissance (Great Courses, #3970) by Kenneth R. Bartlett
- Machiavelli in Context (Great Courses, #4311) by William R. Cook
What are you currently watching on television?
I regularly watch Modern Family, The Big Bang, Hannibal, Charlie Rose, Person of Interest, Suits, PBS News Hour, The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, White Collar, Major Crimes, Psych, Parks & Recreation, Blue Bloods, The Profit, Restaurant: Impossible, Grimm, Perception Recent one-off shows include: H2’s Big History Series and Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews
Bernard Pivo-esque section
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I have a generally better memory than most. Though it was naturally good when I was younger, I ran across the concepts of the major system and the method of loci (aka the memory palace) at an early age and they have helped significantly.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I never seem to sleep as much as most, but lately I’ve been getting 5-6 hours of sleep at night usually from 2-7am. I’m far from a morning person and most of my best thinking hours are from 11pm to 2am.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I grew up definitely as an introvert, but during college I managed to force myself to be an extrovert. These days I move between the two as my mood and social circumstances dictate.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Some know it as the “Golden Rule,” but “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” I highly recommend people read How to Win Friends and Influence People.