I love finding out what others use to get their work done, and The Setup is my favorite way to do that. In the hopes of getting listed there—and also to share what I use—here’s my own personal interview.
Mechanical engineering professor (Oregon State University)
Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Kyle Niemeyer (@kyleniemeyer), a professor in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. There, I do research in combustion and fluid dynamics using computational modeling, and teach courses on numerical methods and fluid dynamics.
In my past life1, I also did some science writing for a little site called Ars Technica. In addition to a good number of shorter stories, I also wrote some longer feature pieces on future efficient engine technology and the revival of nuclear power in the United States. I plan to do more writing like this, about my own work and that of others, once I figure out how to work that into my tenure-track faculty schedule.
What hardware do you use?
I nearly live on a 13” MacBook Pro, whether I’m working from home in the evening, a coffeeshop on the weekend, an airport or plane, or (if possible) a beach. This is my third Mac laptop; I purchased my first MacBook during the summer of 2006 between my first and second years of college2. Compared to my previous MacBook Pro from 2010, my current laptop is quite a bit lighter, thinner, and more powerful, and is pretty much perfect. The high-resolution Retina display is also pretty nice, especially in comparison to the older non-Retina display.
I carry an iPhone 6S that travels with me everywhere, along with a Baron Fig Confidant notebook and a Timbuk2 Uptown Backpack. I’m also partial to VELA A3 Advanced Computation Laboratory notebooks. Other than when I’m traveling, I pretty much always carry a pocketknife; although I tend to somewhat collect different models, my current carry is a Deejo Juniper Wood 27G knife. Otherwise, the classic Buck 55 folding knife is my long-term favorite.
I used to work off my laptop in my office, but I switched to a dedicated 27” Retina 5K iMac that I now use with a second Dell P2715Q 4K 27” monitor, as recommended by the The Wirecutter. Both of these things sit on my Ergo Depot Jarvis Bamboo standing desk, also recommended by The Wirecutter (detecting a trend?); technically, the desk is adjustable for sitting and standing, but I’ve been working at a standing desk for about five years… so I stand 99% of the time.
And what software?
Both of my computers run OS X, which has been my primary OS since my first Mac almost ten years ago. At this point, I dislike being forced to use Windows, and can’t imagine switching back to lose, if nothing else, the Unix core.
I rely on the standard Mac apps for my internet browsing, email, and calendar needs (Safari, Mail, and Calendar), mainly for the easy iCloud syncing between computers and my phone. I do tend to keep Chrome or Firefox running for “work” tabs (e.g., searches on Stack Overflow, Google Scholar).
Beyond those apps, I use Things to keep track of my tasks across my computers and iPhone. Papers maintains my library of (thousands of) academic papers. I’ve been a Papers customer for years now, and although their introduction of the latest major version was a bit rough, they’ve since upped the quality.
I write papers using LaTeX via TeXShop, with the MacTeX distribution. Like most other people, I used to write papers and other documents using MS Word, but during graduate school I became so fed up with its quirks and irritating behaviors that I vowed to avoid it when possible3. LaTeX is free, source files are viewable and editable plaintext documents, and it generally produces beautiful documents. For collaborative writing, I either use ShareLaTeX or a paper GitHub repo.
I use a number of other web apps with my research group and collaborators. Slack has replaced email as my primary communication medium with my students, and it’s great for sharing files, images, and code snippets. I’ve also been using Trello to keep track of tasks and deadlines.
I rely on Dropbox to both continuously back up my important files in the cloud and sync between my two computers. Dropbox is one of those services that basically just works; I used to rely on all sorts of free space, but have since shelled out for a Pro account (and the 1 TB of storage that comes with it).
Backblaze backs up my entire MacBook Pro, invisibly in the background.
For my code development work, I write in TextMate—and increasingly Atom—and use the default Terminal app with ZSH via oh-my-zsh. Homebrew does an excellent job maintaining all of my software packages, and git handles all my version control needs.
What would be your dream setup?
I think I’m approaching my ideal setup, especially in terms of my office vs. home/traveling computer split.
That said, in my office I find that I’m constantly running out of space on my desk. It would be nice to have a bit more room to spread out, perhaps with another table next to my desk to form an L.
For a while now, I’ve had my eye on the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard, but for some reason haven’t pulled the trigger on getting it.
If I’m really dreaming, then I’d have a private, GPU-based high-performance computing cluster for all my research computing needs. For now, I’ll have to make do with computing resources on campus, and requesting computing time from federally funded supercomputers such as those in NSF’s XSEDE.
When I was a graduate student and had more “free” time. ↩
Specifically, I was trying to write a conference paper that had strict two-column formatting guidelines. Word refused to keep figures in the locations I placed them. ↩