The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

Erin McKean

Photo by George Hall.

Erin McKean

Founder of Wordnik

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Erin and I run, the world's biggest English dictionary (by number of entries). We just reorganized to be a not-for-profit! I also blog intermittently at A Dress A Day and have written six books, most recently The Hundred Dresses, and the novel The Secret Lives of Dresses.

What hardware do you use?

I am looking to replace my 2011 13" MacBook Air -- but don't tell it yet, I don't want it to get upset. I keep it on a Rain Design Mac stand when I'm in my home office, connected to an ancient Dell monitor. I rotate between a couple of different equally unsatisfying ergo keyboards and a plain ol' Apple wireless, and I use a Logitech ergo mouse with a scroll wheel and lots of buttons (but I don't really use the extra buttons). I use a gel wrist rest and sit on an exercise ball rather than a chair.

I have an iPhone 4s and I'm dreading replacing it, as I like its size and the new iPhones are appreciably bigger. I still miss my awesome Palm Pre.

For sewing, I have a Juki HZL-E80 machine -- not expensive, a real workhorse. I've had it about eight years. On those rare occasions when it's in the shop, I use a 1950s New Home model 560 cabinet machine that I inherited from my husband's grandmother. It's just slightly more complicated to operate, so I don't use it as much. If the worst happened and BOTH machines were unavailable, I have a backup-backup machine, a very pretty 1930s Singer Redeye, that was given to me out of the blue by a stranger. I use a Reliable Velocity steam iron, which is nice and heavy, and an extra-big ironing board. I'm not picky about scissors and other tools, although I like the ones on this list a lot, especially the invisible zipper foot. I do have a large fold-out cutting table, which is essential. My sewing space is only big enough to use 2/3 of it at a time, but it's so much better than cutting on a dining table or (worse) the floor.

For plain old writing I like the pocket-sized Moleskine notebooks -- my latest one is the softcover teal, which I really like. I like the little Field Notebooks too, but tend to hoard them instead of use them. If I don't want to carry the full notebook I clip a few index cards together with a tiny binder clip and just carry those -- I buy the cards at Ichiban Kan or Daiso. I like Zebra Sarasa pens (.7) or, if I need something to make me write slowly, disposable Varsity fountain pens.

I always carry a mini-Sharpie and usually carry a tiny roll of duct tape.

And what software?

Years ago I used fancy custom SGML-based dictionary editing software that was written in Denmark and ran on OS/2, but now I just use text editors. I use Sublime Text for coding and TextWrangler for any kind of quick data-munging (because their regex engine is embedded in my fingers). I have just switched to zsh, and am kicking myself for not doing it earlier. I use nano or pico if I have to edit something from the command line (and yes, I know there are better options and no, I don't care).

The Wordnik front end is in Node.js, so I'm spending a lot of time with Node these days. I really enjoy it. I even wrote a little npm module, umpteen that's overdue for an update. It takes numbers and spells out words. We also use GitHub, AWS, MongoLab, Orchestrate, and Papertrail for logging. MongoLab, Orchestrate, and Papertrail have wonderful customer service. The Wordnik API is Swaggerized. I use WPEngine for the Wordnik blog and my blog -- also A+ support. (Friends don't let friends manage their own WordPress installations.)

For writing, I use the Scrivener app for my drafts, separate notebooks for each project (the medium-sized Muji ones are nice), and index cards. (Once the manuscript is back from the editor, though, Word track-changes is forced upon one.)

I use OneTab to keep myself from dying of tab exposure (that's a thing), CloudApp so that I can send links instead of attachments, JumpCut as a clipboard manager (although I'm looking for a new one) and TextExpander to save SO MUCH TYPING. I try to make it a rule that the third time I type the same thing I have to make it into a TextExpander macro. I use to keep track of good model example sentences for machine learning inputs (and other lovely sentences that strike my fancy), and Evernote to keep track of everything else. I use Google Drive for anything that needs collaboration, aside from book manuscripts.

For email I use Thunderbird because I like to have my email near me, where I can keep an eye on it, instead of up in the cloud. (I do back up to the cloud, with Mozy.) I use Colloquy for IRC and TweetDeck for Twitter, and am going to be using Slack any day now, I can tell.

For reading I love the Safari Books app, the Kindle app, and Bluefire Reader (especially Bluefire Reader). For news -- by which I mean keeping up with topics I'm interested in -- I like the Reverb iOS app (of course). I keep non-Kindle ebooks in Dropbox and sync them to BlueFire, very convenient! I mostly read on an iPad mini these days.

I don't use any sewing software -- no pattern-making software or anything like that. For pattern reviews I look at or the Vintage Patterns Wiki which I started a million years ago and now has a wonderful life of its own, with >70K patterns listed. I like downloadable patterns -- BurdaStyle has some great ones.

What would be your dream setup?

I'd like a Mac laptop about the same size/weight as the MacBook Air I have now, only with an infinite local hard drive, or, failing that, at least 2 TB so I can keep tons of datasets on my local machine. I'd also like something with a screen size that's about the size of a paperback book, but I don't want that thing to be my phone, too. I just want something easier to carry in my pocket than the iPad mini but big enough to read books on comfortably. I keep thinking I should get a cheap Android phablet just for reading, but that seems like overkill. I'd also like a keyboard/mouse setup that monitors me for overuse and throws up increasingly irate warnings on the screen when it looks like I'm doing myself damage.

For sewing I just want more space.. and a better way to organize the ridiculous amount of fabric I've acquired.

Previously: / Next up: