What I Use Now

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

What I Use

Many semesters ago I started writing about my digital tools, recommending some of my favorites, and describing how I used them and why. I did this for a few reasons, on the practical level I found these types of posts by others to be tremendosouly useful to me helping me to find some useful tools and become a better user of technology, so in part this was a way to give back to the community I was taking from. I also enjoy testing out new technologies, for the most part I enjoy this and writing up what I found always seemed like a natural extension of this practice. The third reason though is more philosophical, and probably grounds why I keep doing writing up what I use. I find that the tools we use in part shape the practice of our work (whether that is in teaching or research or really in a field), but we often don’t discuss these choices treating the tools and means of production as irrelevant to the process, obfuscating what we are doing. I often feel as if our work practices are a black box labeled “magic goes here” where we don’t discuss process only product, but for me the process informs the product heavily and vice versa so discussing the process (particularly the tools is important, at least to me).

The Big Picture

Over the years what I use has substantially changed. Back in the day, I used to be all Apple, Mac, iOS etc. Indeed you can find many blog posts talking about this or pictures of me using these devices. But I have changed a lot since then. I won’t detail all of the reasons here, although you can probably read in some of the particulars below. But the main guiding principle in my choices has been in choosing Open Source technology, technology that avoids locking me into one way of doing things, and privileging choices which allow the end user (me) to control the data and the system. I tend to move away from platforms which I don’t control the data, and completely avoid any platform or tool over which I have no control.

Main Tools

Linux:

My main computer at this point runs Linux (right now Ubuntu, I have played around with other flavors). The operating system is lean, fast, and most importantly I have root access to anything on the computer. Using FOSS software is a moral bonus here. I also appreciate my students reactions when I tell them my Operating System is free. Initially there was a learning curve where I had to learn how to fix various problems via the terminal, but fortunately there is the “internet” and any problem I have I am able to fix myself (usually) with just a bit of research. Being able to fix ones own computer = huge feature. Not having to ask permission from some large corporate entity = even more huge feature. When I first started playing around with Linux years ago it wasn’t what you would call user friendly. Now in many ways I would argue that it is actually easier to use than iOS or Windows, you just have to be prepared to be your own help desk (or let the internet be your help desk). Software wise there are some trade-offs here, no access to the Adobe Creative Suite (for the more creative/art focused faculty with whom I work this makes it a non-starter) and their isn’t a really good presentation software either (really Keynote is now the only thing I go back to an Apple computer for).

Text Editor:

Probably the application I spend the most time with is a text editor. I used to believe in fancy wordprocessing software but have come to realize that this isn’t really necessary. Almost all of the writing I do now, from informal meeting notes, to web content, to writing for the web, all the way to formal journal articles starts off first in a text editor. For stuff that is bound for the web or print this almost always means writing first in markdown than passing what I write thru pandoc to convert it to the most appropriate style/format. I still have some stuff (old notes, writing etc) that is either in Mellel or Omni Outliner and I kick myself everytime I have to go thru the laborious process of getting that info out of those formats. Right now my text editor of choice is Sublime, but I could change, its not really important (I have some colleagues who prefer Brackets or Atom) the point is that by writing in a text editor (mostly in markdown) my files are easily readable regardless of the application.

Firefox:

Obviously a web browser is central to my work (and really at this point isn’t the browser pretty much the main application on any computing device). I go back and forth between Firefox and Chrome. I have always found Chrome to be a little more high performing, eats less memory, doesn’t crash when I have 20 tabs open and I can leave the browser open for weeks without restarting. I find Firefox to be a little pickier, but the performance issues are only slight, not enough to warrant me switching. Mozilla > Google. The ability to use plugins though makes Firefox and Chrome the only two acceptable choices in my world. Plugins I use: Pocket, Ghostery, LastPass, PrivacyBadger, HTTPS Everywhere, Shortcuts for Google, Push Bullet, Open Access Button, Findbar, Search by Image, Instant Fox. (My extensive plugin use might have something to do with why I don’t get top performance out of the browser.)

Thunderbird:

Really I am not a fan of checking email via the web browser, I want a dedicated client for this. Thunderbird does the trick. It also (like Firefox) has a plugin architecture that enables me to tweak it down to suit my needs. I tried out Mailpile, but it was designed to look and feel like web browser email, so I think I am probably not the target market even though I like the project in theory. Plugins I use in Thunderbird: Enigmail, Mail Redirect, QuickFolders, Quick Translator.

Jekyll and Octopress:

As you might be able to tell I have switched around a lot on my website. I used to be an avid Wordpress fan, using it to host my own personal site as well as all the resources for teaching. But after spending a year using Octopress and Jekyll I can say I doubt I am going back. The learning curve was honestly pretty steep at first, and it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea of writing the files locally on my machine, than compiling the website locally, then deploying as static html to the server, but once I did (thanks @timlockridge) I have come to appreciate the myriad advantages. Again, I end up having access and control over all my files locally. Also no worrying about databases and updating Wordpress. And finally when it comes to mothballing classes and setting up the website for a new semester it is ridiculously easy, and I am able to preserve each semester now as its own seperate site, archiving it without having to worry about things getting ridiculously clunky or updating multiple wordpress installs.

SpiderOak:

I use this so much I forget about it. Basically its a more secure version of Dropbox. I really only use Dropbox for sharing things with others, but for backing up my files, and syncing between my own computers SpiderOak > Dropbox.

iAnnotate:

Wait, I know an iOS app? Yes, I still have an iPad, next tablet I get I will probably get an Android one, but for now I still use an iPad. Mostly I read on it, and that is where iAnnotate comes in. I save journal articles I want to read into a folder and then mark them up in iAnnotate. Ridiculously useful. Also handy for “signing” forms without having to print them out, sign them, scan them, and email them back.

And that’s pretty much it, I would say 80-90% of my computing time is spent with those applications. I use the Libre Office suite when I need a Word Processor or a Spreadsheet, but really I get most of what I need done in the other applications. There are other smaller tools I use occasionally, and a suite of programs that I use for 3d printing. But in terms of work practice that is pretty much it.