Uses This

A collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.

A picture of Ethan Schoonover

Ethan Schoonover

Designer, developer (Kinkless, Solarized)

Posted in designer, developer, linux, mac

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm an independent designer/developer. I do digital, print, and what I think of as "meta design". For instance, I built a popular universal colorscheme called Solarized. Prior to that some might know me from a task management system called Kinkless which Merlin Mann and I helped The Omni Group turn into OmniFocus. Prior to that I was a full time photographer in Asia where I also worked for many years in a multinational ad agency.

What hardware do you use?

MacBook Pro, latest 15" model. External Cinema Display. I generally stay fairly current on my main hardware due to the graphics-cards/graphics-apps arms race.

My primary interface is a white Happy Hacking Professional 2 keyboard with blank key caps. A couple years ago I forced myself to relearn touch typing. I thought I was doing well till I got a this keyboard. It forced me to improve even further and it's a joy to type on (Topre switches). Plus, when Case uses his Ono-Sendai deck in Neuromancer you know that it must look like a Happy Hacking Keyboard.

My wrist has been saved by the Evoluent Vertical mouse. Nothing else like it that I've found. I recently upgraded to the new Wacom Intuos which is wireless and has pen/capacitive touch support. The gesture support is very usable though it isn't as smooth as the glass Apple trackpads.

I also have a dedicated Arch Linux laptop, currently a Lenovo x220 Tablet PC with capacitive & pen touch screen. I run a lot of customizations to take advantage of the hardware. For instance, I can swipe on the screen to change Xmonad workspaces. Lots of power tweaking as well and with the extended battery it can run for over 12 hours of normal use.

Color calibration hardware is critical for my work and I use one of the x-rite display calibration units. It works on Arch and OS X. Large format prints roll off of my reliable Epson 7800 with the phatte black ink system and a custom RIP.

I make extensive use of professional lighting supports and grip hardware, the kind used to set up strobes and photo/video lights, backdrops. Grip hardware is like human-size Lego connectors and is designed to carry significant loads. I recently configured an entire sit/stand "Grip Desk" out of this gear and am using it full time. I use a lot of Manfrotto 035 Superclamps and articulated arms like the 244N Magic Arm to mount gear to either the Grip Desk or to a standard table surface (as microphone boom, document holder, etc.).

I have some iPhones and an iPad here but I don't use them other than as a way to stay in touch with UI/UX work being done on those platforms. The iPad's lack of built in physical keyboard is kind of a deal breaker for me. Fun to play on but not a key part of my workflow. If I'm not typing/wacoming, I'd rather be outside with my eyes up, not down.

I have a Kindle but being able to read without being able to scribble marginalia? A truly Tantalusian torment. Awkward highlighting and stilted note taking doesn't cut it. I manage this by pairing e-reading with heavy note taking in Vim, but I still prefer physical book markup with pens.

Android is my preferred mobile OS and I run various custom ROMs. My primary Android is currently a Sony (nee Ericsson) Xperia Ray, which is the smallest Android I could find that still has enough power and a reasonable camera. I miss good physical keyboards on decent phones. I feel like the only modern human that prefers the smallest possible smart phone.

In addition to music I listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts. The only headphones I use and recommend are my beloved Sennheiser HD25s (mine are the cheaper SP version). I've had them for 12 years. Every part is replaceable and I'm on the second generation of all the squishy bits on this particular pair. This is the great advantage of professional grade equipment: standard components. I've re-cabled them myself with Canare starquad mic cable in bright orange. Because, you know, BRIGHT ORANGE. If I'm on a call or moving around, the MW600 Bluetooth Stereo Headset drives the HD25s nicely.

I shoot on mostly Canon glass with digital bodies and I have enough film for my Arca Swiss F-Line for a bit longer but I'm increasingly drawn to the new crop of mirrorless and digital rangefinders. Lots of shooting on a new Fuji X-Pro1. Love it.

I also enjoy building custom hardware. A while back I gutted an old HP pulse generator and built up a 1984-themed router/firewall running PFSense (FreeBSD based) which is rock solid and super fast.

And what software?

My software philosophy has changed radically over the past couple years. I went full Linux for about a year and it was mind-changing. I look at UI and UX a lot differently now because of my heavy Xmonad use and the deep-diving into the OS that one does in Arch.

Part of my attitude change was that everything I run should attempt to meet the following aspirational criteria. Not all software will. I'm an open source pragmatist.

  • Open source

  • Open data format

  • Data format should be as primitive as possible (plain text)

  • Unix philosophy: do one thing well; avoid everything-tools

  • Don't reinvent the OS; avoid everything-buckets

  • Keep close to the command line

  • Use vi text navigation commands as much as possible for navigation

I'd probably be running Arch Linux full time right now if it weren't for my absolutely unmanageble Adobe dependency. I've tried kicking the habit by going cold-turkey (or rather, cold-open-source) but the libre alternatives are just nowhere near the capabilities of the Creative Suite. I use Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign heavily along with Acrobat Pro for print preflight. I always stayed up to date by paying my Adobe tax on a regular basis. CS6 is great.

All writing (and much thinking) is in Vim. I like the new markdown centric OS X apps like Byword (with Marked) and my old standby Ulysses 3 is in development. But Vim, if you know it, is as close to thinking as typing gets.

For browsing: Chrome, Firefox with Pentadactyl.

iTerm and TotalTerminal. Getting into tmux. Homebrew gives me a repository like experience on the Mac. I'm excited about the homebrew "taps" system that's in progress. Taskwarrior for command-line task management. I use zsh and bash 4 as my shells, in that order of preference.

Mutt for command-line mail, paired with OfflineIMAP for local caching and notmuch for power indexing. Gmail for web interface when useful. Some use of Sparrow/

I still make heavy use of RSS and use the web view of Google Reader, occasional newsbeuter on the command line. I have several OS X gui apps for RSS feeds but I don't find them to be up to the flexibility of the web/cli experience.

Plain text is the order of the day. Anything outside of plain text gets handled in Google Docs. Anything more complex is done in InDesign. Almost all text is Gruber-standard Markdown. I have a custom Markdown syntax I wrote for Vim that also handles Pandoc extensions so that I can push material out to Hakyll for various static websites that update via git push. Metadata is mostly recorded in Dublin Core text format. I'm very interested in the new Open Annotation Data model as well.

I do use DEVONthink Pro on the Mac, primarily for its textual analysis and cascading tagging. Still working on how this tagging can work better cross platform with Linux. It's an everything bucket but designed well enough to be used as a lean tool., Default Folder X and a host of other openmeta aware apps also come into play. Hazel for folder/file monitoring and automation.

OS X requires extra work to bring it up to an approximation of the flow I experience in Xmonad on Arch. I use Moom, Tyler, Alfred and my own scripting for window management. Alfred also takes the place of Xmonad.Prompt to an extent. I use TotalFinder for tabbed Finder use, though I just picked up the new Path Finder and it seems like an excellent upgrade so may switch. KeyRemap4MacBook and BetterTouchTool give me control over text and gesture input. Xorg and Xmonad on Arch Linux handle the same. SwitchResX to compensate for lack of xrandr equivalent on the Mac.

I keep the Dock off permanently. It doesn't exist for me. Not just hidden but obliterated (I use a third party tool called Dock Gone for this but it can be done with AppleScript).

FileVault2 for disk encryption on OS X. LUKS for disk encryption on Arch. Lastpass for cross platform password management. Two factor authentication using a Yubikey and Google Authenticator.

I use few social networks. No Facebook. I worked in advertising long enough to not want to spend my personal time building a marketing database about me for someone else. I am glad for Twitter but I wish it was open and federated. I think it's easy to forget how important open, federated systems were to the success of our beloved network of networks.

What would be your dream setup?

Like all sentient beings, I recognize that Apple is still producing the absolute best hardware out there right now. I tire of OS X's aging desktop UI, however, and do not see the excessive simplicity of iOS as a reasonable replacement for power users. Thus my optimal setup today is Apple hardware running Linux. I'd prefer an Air if it had better graphics.

My future dream setup is a paper like display. E-ink or pixel-qi-like. Works as a touchscreen for a tablet experience. A pen can be used for natural annotation and drawing. Proximity to a keyboard (mechanical keycaps, natch) enables a tiling window mode where simple utilities each do one thing well and yet can work together. Text. Line drawing. Black ink. It's paper that syncs.