2018 State of the Tools

For the last two years, I’ve written up an annual post describing my current computing setup. Time for another 🙂.


I continue to work to reduce my technical distance: when practical, I want to be able to recommend much of the software I use to others, even to non-technical users.

I also want tools that just work without a great deal of fussing or lots of installation. I want to be able to move in to a new machine quickly, and to be productive witout relying on sophisticated customizations I carry around.

Hardware, Operating System, and Browser

I continue to use Windows 10 as my client OS, using Windows Subsystem for Linux (usually with Debian) and/or Docker when I need local *nix support.

Server is Red Hat at work, and FreeBSD for our (now little-used) NAS at home. I switched from nixOS to FreeBSD because I wasn’t getting a lot out of Nix anymore, and FreeBSD has very good ZFS support.

I am still using a Surface Pro 4 for my personal computer. At work I have switched to the Surface Go for my portable machine, and still use a Dell Precision (now with 2 24” 4K displays) as my workstation. I’m running the Kensington Expert Mouse and the Microsoft Sculpt keyboard to help keep my tendonitis in check.

My mobile device is an iPhone SE, and I was very glad the Apple store in Vancouver still had a few in stock the week after they were discontinued. I very much hope Apple releases an SE2 with an OLED display before my SE goes end-of-life.

At home I am still using Firefox as my primary browser, although a recent bug my profile has developed might send me scurrying. At work I use Chrome because we’re a Google campus and it’s the only browser supported by Paperpile.

E-mail, Storage, Etc.

Boise State is a Google campus, so everything is on Google: e-mail, calendaring, office suite, etc. I use Google Drive for syncing work files between computers, and for mobile access.

For personal things, we are using Office 365, so my e-mail is in Outlook (or Windows Mail) and files on OneDrive.


I try to write in Word when practical, although I often do first drafts in Google Docs to make collaborative discussion with colleagues easier. Final versions of papers are often in LaTeX with Overleaf, because the new ACM template is very difficult to use in Word.

I use PaperPile for citation management; for Word integration, I export to BibTeX and use BibTeX4Word.

Other writing is generally in Markdown (using a variety of parsers).

Programming Languages

I am doing more and more work in Python now. Since switching LensKit to Python, it makes sense to keep things in a consistent language. While I still personally prefer R for data analysis and statistics, Python is good enough and R’s benefits aren’t worth requiring my students to learn multiple languages. Invoke is replacing Gradle as my standard task runner; I am not entirely happy with it, but it gets the job done well enough for now. I am doing very little Java these days.

I still enjoy JavaScript a lot, and write it when I can. My web site is lovingly crafted with a medium pile of JavaScript code. I’m not using JS for data processing at work very much any more, especially for research, because it addes additional complexity to the toolchain for students to work with the code.

I now have more use for Rust, however; this fact makes me very happy. I recently finished rewriting the data import and linking code for the book gender project from SQL, JavaScript, and R (with a little Fortran) into SQL, Python, and Rust. Rust is used for first-pass data cleaning and munging; it is much faster than JS for some of this (my VIAF importer went from a 20-hour process to about 3 hours changing from Node + expat to Rust + quick-xml). I also suspect Rust will be more approachable than JS for students & collaborators, because the code structures are more straightforward (like Python) instead of the heavy inversion of asynchronous JavaScript code.

That’s about all I’m writing, aside from the occasional shell script.

Editing and Developing

VS Code. With Python, JavaScript, and Rust, Code provides me with all the tooling I need and has a significantly lower footprint than JetBrains products.

In the terminal I use GNU Nano.

UNIX Shell

I’m using Bash now; while Fish is nice, the overhead of carrying my own shell around isn’t worth it. I’ve got a modes set of Bash customizations I carry around via Git, and it gets the job done.s

I’m using tmux, direnv, and z to make life easier.


I’m no longer rolling my own backups; BackBlaze is taking care of them for me.

Documents and Drawings

I use Grapholite for diagrams, unless they’re too complicated and I need to turn to Visio. I use Inkscape for non-diagram vector graphics. Paint.net is my first call for raster image editing (install it from the Windows Store though, not its web site) and I upgrade to Krita for more advanced needs and Darktable for dealing with RAW files from the camera.

I use Powerpoint for all my presentations. I share them online with a read-only link in OneDrive.

I use Drawboard PDF for marking up PDFs on the Surface, and usually Adobe Reader for my other PDF viewing needs; I also have Acrobat on hand for when I need to do advanced PDF operations.

I have also been doing some typography design; I use Scribus for print layout and either Montax Imposer or Bookbinder for imposition. I have been toying with the idea of writing a simple PDF imposer as an excuse to learn Electron, but haven’t started on that at all. I currently use the free version of High-Logic MainType for font management.