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 Jean Yang

Jean Yang

Computer scientist (programming languages)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm a final-year PhD student in computer science focusing on programming languages. I am interested in programming language design and software verification, which means I think about how to help people write the programs they intended to write. I spend most of my time writing code, writing papers, writing talks, and brainstorming how to write these things.

Outside of my research I think a lot about writing for a more general audience. I co-direct a science writing group, NeuWrite Boston, that gets together once every few weeks to workshop pieces and talk about the craft. Much of my writing is also about diversity issues in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

What hardware do you use?

Once I saw Nobel laureate Oliver Smithies, who discovered DNA recombination, give a talk about his process. He showed us photos of his lab notebooks leading up to his discovery and got me thinking about how recording your work -- and the associated ideas -- is as important as doing the work. Though I'm not a lab scientist, I spend a fair bit of time with my notebooks. (I've tried digital note-keeping methods and, for me, nothing comes close to the real thing.) I'm absolutely in love with the Postalco A5. It's designed incredibly well. The back cover extends a few centimeters beyond the pages to keep the notebook from slipping as you write. The spine sits on top to allow for ease of labelling on the sides. The pages have a fine mesh grid that makes it nice for writing words and drawing diagrams at all scales.

As for computers, I have a Lenovo X230 laptop that I do most of my work on. Unless I'm in the middle of some heavy duty work I'll keep my X230 at the office. I use my older Lenovo X220 at home for writing emails and editing cloud documents.

I have a 30-inch monitor that I use in my office for coding. For a while I built myself a standing desk out of old computers we had lying around the office, for instance a SPARC workstation. I usually just use the laptop monitor for displaying photos of kittens. I've found them to be great for morale.

And what software?

I spent a lot of time figuring out how to dual boot Linux and Windows on my machines. I code using Vim in Ubuntu Linux. My Windows partition is for Powerpoint and for the art software that came with my Wacom drawing tablet. I also have a Google Doc for everything.

I'm skeptical of software fetishism. I firmly believe in taking time away from technology so we can listen to our minds. I've found refocusing through yoga, meditation, and journaling to be far better for productivity and creativity than, for instance, using programs like RescueTime and LeechBlock to "optimize" my time at the computer.

What would be your dream setup?

Something with as few interactions with present-day computers as possible. I love everything computers can do for me, but the physical act of using them wrecks me. In college I had physical therapy twice for a Repetitive Stress Injury in my neck. I have so many ergonomic problems that each night I spend about an hour stretching to undo the damage of the day.

With current technologies I could go a long way towards computerlessness with a small, dedicated team of stenographers to record my ideas and meetings and to transcribe my notable quotes into tweets. I don't yet have a good story for coding without traditional computers. I might be stuck typing into these little death machines for the next good while.