The Setup

Interview

What do people use to get stuff done?

Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer

Science fiction & fantasy novelist, history professor, musician

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am a science fiction & fantasy novelist, a professor in the History Department at the University of Chicago, and also blogger, and a composer and musician. My research specialty is the Italian Renaissance - Borgias, Medici, Machiavelli, heresy trials - and I spend a lot of time in Italy using the Vatican Library, or other historic libraries in Florence, Venice and other Italian towns and cities.

My science fiction has a lot of history and philosophy in it, and my first novel Too Like the Lightning (published by Tor) is set in an exciting, almost golden age SF future, with flying cars and robot helpers, but written in a historical style, by a narrator who is writing a "history" of a political upheaval in the 25th century, imitating the styles of Enlightenment histories and philosophical novels.

My blog Ex Urbe treats my travel as well as history, philosophy, literature, and food - I especially love gelato, and run an International Gelato Atlas with recommendations of good gelato in places around the world.

My music is complicated multi-part a cappella, with close harmony and a lot of countermelodies in a Renaissance style, and I usually focus on mythological themes. I recently wrote a Viking mythology stage musical, focused on the life of Snorri Sturlson and the death of Baldur, and with friends to help I produced and directed both two CDs of the music and a DVD of the live stage performance.

People constantly ask how I manage to balance so many tasks, research in Italy, writing articles and nonfiction books and fiction all at once, while also recording and releasing CDs, and handling a full teaching load. It's an intense balance, often overwhelming, but each type of work is a refreshing break from other types of work, so that (except for the constant battle against email) everything is fresh and exciting when I return to it from other projects.

What hardware do you use?

My desk is more special than any of my hardware. Since I'm generally working at the keyboard at least ten hours per day, I fight a constant battle against RSI. RSI is a serious problem in the academic world as well as among writers, and a recent study showed that 60% of grad students at Harvard where I studied develop RSI by the time they're half way through. I had already developed it as an undergraduate, and at one point it was so bad that I had constant shooting pain up my right arm and could barely feel or move the fingers on that hand. That made me start to really study up on the condition, since many of us don't think about how many hours we spend crouched low over laptops, working with our chins only a foot above our hands. That's terrible for the nerves in your back and arms, so by avoiding it - even by so crude a means as putting a second monitor up on a stack of old pizza boxes - I've saved myself a lot of pain, and earned myself a lot of extra productive time. Thanks to adopting a better desk setup, and starting to sleep in gentle wrist braces (I recommend the Ace kind with the dial) to keep my wrists from getting strained by sleeping on them wrong, I recovered quickly, and have never needed surgery. The keys for me are (A) to have the monitor at face height but the keyboard low, and (B) to have the mouse or trackball close in so it's in front of my right shoulder instead of way out to the right, since the farther out your mouse/trackball is the more strain it puts on your shoulder. Sleeping in not-too-tight wrist is also amazingly helpful, since if you sleep for eight hours with your wrist in a bad position you can do as much damage as a day of typing. But it's important to be careful about wearing wrist braces that are too tight, or wearing them too much while typing, since some people are helped by it but others can suffer permanent damage from it. But sleeping in them, that at least worked wonders for me.

In the past I've used stacks of books and boxes to make my ideal desk, but now I use a custom-made Uprize Independent Leg Motorized Sit-Stand Desk, made by a great company which will cut a custom tabletop to your requested size, to fit your office. I try to always stand while doing e-mail and administrative tasks, but sit for writing when I need my full concentration. I do almost all my work on a Lenovo X-series laptop, because Lenovo laptops tend to have the best keyboards, and I use a second external second monitor up on an Ergoprise adjustable monitor arm. I use a Logitech M570 wireless trackball instead of a mouse. I sometimes use an external keyboard, usually a 61-key Compact Wasd mechanical keyboard, because I like the touch responsiveness of the mechanical keyboard, and I like that they have a small option with no number pad. Having an extra-narrow keyboard lets me have my trackball or mouse close in front of me instead of far out to the right hand side, which cuts down a lot on the strain on my right arm and does wonders for my RSI pain.

When I travel I either carry a Lenovo ThinkVision LT1421 14" Portable USB LED Monitor which I can put up high on a pile of books or boxes, or I bring an external keyboard and Goldtouch lightweight aluminum portable laptop stand, so I can put the laptop up high and the keyboard low. I often also bring a Samson LTS50 portable laptop table, to make sure I can have the keyboard low enough relative to my lap. For audio recording I use a TASCAM US-4x4 USB audio interface, which can take 4 mics at once, or otherwise a portable Yeti USB mic if I'm traveling or podcasting.

And what software?

My main productivity and organizational tool is Habitica, also called HabitRPG, a gamified online productivity program. In Habitica you and a group friends create a digital adventuring party, and you have little avatars with hats and swords and wands and such. You create lists of daily tasks, habits, and to-do items, and as you check them off you earn points which do damage to monsters you're fighting, and earn rewards. It sounds silly but it's amazingly good motivation, making you want to work hard to keep the monsters from hurting your friends, and smiling as you see the cute creatures. I've gotten so much better since I started using it, both at productivity and at self-maintenance, thanks to customization options which let you create tasks like "rest" and "exercise" and "say no to something" in addition to "finish chapter 11" or "brush teeth." My daily tasks of "End with inbox at least 1 smaller than yesterday" and "Do a good thing for yourself" have worked wonders.

For other programs, I spend most of my day in Microsoft Word, not because it's the best word processor but because it's the most compatible with others, and I need to be able to open student assignments, and send files to publishers in standard formats. I also make extensive use of OneNote, not a well-known program so I like to introduce people to it. It's part of the MS Office suite, and is wonderful for organizing notes since you can have text, small areas of spread sheets, and graphics all together in one space, so they're easy to move around. It's an extremely intuitive program, in ways most Office programs aren't, so it's quick to learn and amazing how you can combine text and images effortlessly in OneNote that would be extremely challenging in Word. I often use its ability to let you click anywhere you want on an image and type in front of it, so I can label and make notes on maps, for example. I have big OneNote files for each of my novel projects, with snippets, outlines, diagrams of notes about characters, and graphics, all together and searchable together.

I use Finale for music composition, and Reaper for mixing. I use Photoshop to clean up photographs of historical artifacts that I use for history and teaching, and for design projects related to my fiction, like designing flags for science fictional nations. I have huge caches of high-resolution photographs of historical objects and places which I use for teaching and research, so I use Dropbox, iCloud and Box for backups and online storage. I use Gmail for my email, along with a wonderful plug-in program called ActiveInbox which costs about $30 a year and adds some great bonus features which make it easier to plow through masses of e-mail quickly and efficiently, and let you easily turn e-mails into to-do lists and calendar items. I also make extensive use of desktop digital post-it notes, EndNote to manage bibliography and references, and occasionally, begrudgingly, PowerPoint.

What would be your dream setup?

Because I travel so much, the key to my dream setup is dream portability. I've cobbled the closest thing I can to a portable ergonomic desk using special keyboards and stands, but it's a lot to carry. My dream setup would be one where the screen of the laptop could pull upward away from the keyboard and stay that way, so I could position the screen up at face height while keeping the keyboard down at lap height or just above. With such a setup I could travel with just the laptop and trackball, and leave all the clunky stands. I know you can use keyboards with tablets, but then I would still need a stand to keep the tablet up at head height, which is so important for avoiding slouching/crouching which is so much of what causes RSI. With that, a good keyboard, and plenty of storage constantly accessible on the cloud, I could bring all my work anywhere, and that is optimum for someone like me who has to balance multiple careers at the same time.

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