My year in tech 2016

Following Alan Jacobs and Boone Gorges, here is a brief report on my year in technology.

Compared to the list of technologies that I used in 2014, not much has changed. My preferred tools for writing remain Markdown, Pandoc, LaTeX, and Vim, with Zotero for citations. I’ve never had a system for taking notes that entirely pleased me. After a brief flirtation with an open wiki notebook, following the lead of Caleb McDaniel and Jason Heppler, I gave it up this year. The idea still seems sounds, but in practice I’m unwilling to have all my notes public, the separation of public and private notes was onerous to maintain, and a fair bit of my note-taking is in the form of “lab notebooks” for which a different system is necessary. At the moment all of my notes are in plain text in a Dropbox directory, which I can access on iOS with 1Writer or on computers in Vim. Perhaps someday I will return to a private wiki.

For computational history, R maintained pride of place. It is astonishing how much better and easier to use the language has become since I started to teach it to grad students a couple of years ago. For one project I was able to do everything from machine learning on Mason’s computing cluster to interactive visualizations in Shiny. I foresee a lot more D3.js in my future, but mostly to make interactive R packages.

Now that the book is more or less done, I’m making an effort to resuscitate this blog. I’ve moved the blog away from Jekyll and back to WordPress. Jekyll is good, but it encourages my instinct to fiddle, and images and figures were a pain. WordPress is better for writing quickly.

I gave up on Twitter. Smarter people than me have articulated plenty of reasons why Twitter is terrible, so I need not go into detail. Suffice it to say that any time I started doing real thinking or writing, I’d tab over to Twitter to relieve the strain of real work. Not to mention that most discussion on Twitter provokes roughly the same distaste as a steaming pile of excrement on my desk. I unfollowed everyone (don’t take it personally) and treat my account as if it is write-only. I confess that I keep the account around because everyone else uses Twitter instead of RSS, and I do like for people to read what I write. Is that a violation of the social compact of Twitter? Probably. Feel free to unfollow me.

Finally, I was fortunate to get two new pieces of hardware. The first is a Lenovo workstation. If a laptop is a sedan and a desktop is a pickup truck, then this computer is one of those massive dump trucks with a snowplow in the front that they use to plow the highways in New England. I think it’s the first desktop computer I’ve used with any regularity since my family got its first computer when I was 13 or 14. It’s convinced me to prefer desktops whenever possible; I only need a laptop for teaching and visits to archives. The workstation runs Ubuntu, which was a huge pain to get properly configured but now is rock solid. In exchange for the largest sum I could imagine spending on a computer, I might have preferred to get a Mac Pro but, as the Apple commentariat has more than adequately pointed out, there just isn’t one.

The other piece of hardware is an iPad Air 2, the cheapest full-size iPad. I held off on getting any kind of tablet for years because they didn’t seem to be able to do anything I couldn’t do elsewhere. But the iPad has become my reading machine. PDF Expert is everything I wanted for reading and annotating PDFs of documents from Google Books or the Hathi Trust, student papers, journal articles, and the like. For the next book project I expect to do the majority of my reading of primary sources (in print, at least) on the iPad. And to my surprise I’m reading many more novels and general non-fiction books via Kindle and Overdrive from my public library. In the half of the year that I had the iPad I read probably fifteen novels; in the previous half, zero.

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