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 Gary Gale

Gary Gale

Geotechnologist

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hi! I'm Gary. That's the easy part out of the way. What I do is somewhat more complex.

I'm a geotechnologist; which really means I lead and manage teams of really clever people who make software products that use geography, geospatial data and location data. Or to put it another way, I do maps and stuff. If I had a penny for every time someone's said just put it on a map I'd be a very rich person.

I started out in the last millenium, as an operator (anyone remember 6250 density magtape?) and then as a programmer on DEC VAX minicomputers writing assembler and Fortran-77, then writing C and C++ on the various commercial flavours of UNIX (OSF/1, Solaris, Tru64 UNIX and AIX) before I ending up using Linux and macOS.

These days I still try and stay hands on, because I never want to stop learning and building things, but I'm more involved in the leadership and strategy sides of technology; after 2 years as a CTO, I've spent the last year as a roving consultant and am just about to start a new role as a CTO again.

What hardware do you use?

I haven't had a work desktop computer since 2006 as, for the past 12 odd years, my job has meant I've ended up working not only in an office but also, thanks to a combination of trains, planes and automobiles, in coffee shops, meeting rooms, conference venues and quite a few airport lounges. That means I rely on a laptop which is only infrequently plugged into an external monitor. And since 2006 that laptop has been a MacBook Pro, starting at the first generation no it's not a PowerBook G4 it just looks like one model up to 2016's fourth generation what is the touch bar for really model.

I'm going to pause here for a moment and reflect on the new MacBook Pro. I know it's easy to say things aren't built like they used to be but with the fourth generation model, Apple seem to have lost their way. It's not clear to me what's Pro about this model apart from a few more USB-C ports. I get that USB-C is possibly the future but the rest of the world hasn't caught up yet. I don't get that I can't upgrade the SSD or RAM once I've bought a new MacBook Pro. This model seems to be more about taking away rather than improving on previous models.

All my previous MacBook Pros have been reliable, rock solid and I've had one disk failure in all of that time, which I could and did swap out myself. I've even had one machine that survived around a meter and a half fall out of a rucksack onto a volcano in Iceland (it's a long story); granted, it had a few cracks and some interesting curves in the unibody, but it continued to be used day in, day out, for a further two years after that.

Maybe it's just bad luck but maybe it's telling that as I write this my fourth generation work horse is with my local Apple store having the keyboard, SSD and logic board replaced.

But when my machine does return and when I am sitting at a desk, it'll be plugged into the biggest monitor I can get away with, also plugged into a Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock with my backup drives and paired with a Magic Keyboard (with numeric keypad) and a Magic Mouse 2.

Lying close to my laptop or in my back pocket will be my iPhone 7, with the hope of an iPhone X coming along soon, and an iPad mini.

At home things are a little more ... eclectic.

Sitting behind my ISP supplied cable modem is a Linksys 1900ACS that's been reflashed with DD-WRT. There's a Raspberry Pi running Pi-Hole which not only blocks ads and tracking across my LAN but also uses Cloudflare's encrypted DNS. There's another Pi sitting behind the main TV which acts as the media centre for our NAS thanks to OSMC plus an Amazon Fire TV Stick and an old Apple TV that I can't remember when we last used it. I should probably unplug that at some point. I'm also running yet another Pi, connected to an external GPS receiver, that's an NTP stratum 1 server for my LAN, just because I like building things like that. There's also a couple of TiVo boxes, many disk drives and wifi points and other technical ephemera. There's even a Windows 10 laptop that gets used for school homework; when it's not rebooting itself to install whatever today's urgent bug fix or software update is.

And what software?

On my iDevices I read books via Kindle, and my news via Flipboard, I also take notes via Penultimate and a stylus. I may even be guilty of playing the odd game occasionally, such as yet another tour around the wonders of Monument Valley. But I still keep an A4 pad in my bag for random scrawling, just in case.

On my Mac, I use Atom for editing, though can still drive Vim for those remote SSH sessions. I keep a range of browsers for testing, but Chrome is my usual browser of choice with the 1Password, Privacy Badger and Pocket plugins, but I might yet be lured back to Safari one day.

I use the command line, via a customised Mac Terminal app a lot and install software via Homebrew whenever I can.

For poking around with geospatial data I use gdal to convert data into something usable that doesn't require enterprise software to work with, which usually means GeoJSON. That also means I can try and make sense of the data with Elasticsearch and Kibana. For visualisation I use QGIS and if I want to share a map based visualisation online Leaflet has rarely let me down.

Not everything can run on OS X, sorry, macOS, so I tend to run a lot of virtual machines via VirtualBox and Vagrant. These are mainly Linux instances, either CentOS or Ubuntu, but there's also a Windows 10 VM there too for those times when I have no choice but to run enterprise software which insists on a legacy version of Internet Explorer or for ensuring that something runs as well on Windows as it does on a UNIX-a-like operating system.

Finally there's the usual tools of email, using my Mac's default Mail client, browsing, mostly using Chrome, and a copy of Office 365 for Mac. I much prefer Apple's Keynote for slide decks, though I have nothing against PowerPoint.

There's a lot more than this, including local Node, Python, Ruby, Go and PHP installs but I don't want to bore you to death.

What would be your dream setup?

After 12 years of living and working in places where a desk appears around 50% of the time I've learned to be pragmatic and if I can live without something for 3 months without going over the edge, then I probably don't really need it or it's not worth obsessing over.

But if I really had to dream it would look something like a third generation MacBook Pro, but with the ability to upgrade the components rather than being stuck with what you initially bought. It would have the latest and greatest set of ports but also support older hardware which still works well, so why should I have to buy a dongle or replace stuff? It would have the power of something akin to a Mac Pro but be lightweight enough to lug between offices and meetings without booking an appointment with the osteopath. It would be able to power multiple external monitors and wouldn't need a specialist docking station or half an hour of plugging stuff in followed by unplugging everything because there's another meeting I absolutely have to go to. And it would have onboard cellular data connectivity because free wifi is rarely around or reliable when you really need it (and no, tethering is not the same thing as that rarely works outside of my home coutry without paying eye watering sums of money for this). I'd happily trade Siri integration (I've never found the need) and the new touch bar for something like that.

Maybe I'm really talking about a Hackintosh but apparently there's laws and copyright that get in the way of that. Maybe we should fix the intellectual property and copyright laws instead? Or maybe that's too much dreaming for one day.