The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

Jeffrey Ely

Jeffrey Ely

Professor of economics (Northwestern University)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Jeffrey Ely, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. I teach and do research on game theory and information economics. Basically I try to understand how to channel selfish motivations into good social outcomes. I write a blog called Cheap Talk, which is mostly about how to think about everyday situations through the lens of economics and game theory.

Recently I have started a venture modernizing pricing mechanisms for sports, concerts, etc called Purple Pricing. My partner, Sandeep Baliga, and I are applying our game theory research to understand how to remove gamesmanship from the ticket-buying experience.

What hardware do you use?

I have Macs everywhere. MacBook Air is my portable, an old MacBook repurposed as a desktop at home and an iMac in the office. My phone is an iPhone 5. For most of my adult life, however, I was a Linux devotee. This was partly hobby and partly for the power/flexibility/freedom of Unix and free software. As I get older other hobbies have taken the forefront and I have less time for messing with things like ifconfig and Xorg.conf but I still rely on Linux for my mail server, Python, and various tools that don't exist anywhere else. So I have a tiny little box under my desktop which runs an incredibly minimal headless Ubuntu installation.

And what software?

The three most important pieces of software for me are TextMate and Safari running on the Mac, and Postfix/IMAP running on my Linux box. With TextMate I write papers in LaTeX, with Safari I write my blog and waste precious time and my mail server setup is responsible for organizing pretty much all of my life. I have about 10 different email addresses which keep different parts of my life in their own channels. I write probably 20 emails to myself a day consisting of reminders, thoughts jotted-down and just general life-journalism. I think most standalone software for "getting organized" is redundant once one understands how to get the most out of old-fashioned email.

What would be your dream setup?

Computers have ceased being an end in themselves for me now - I just think of hardware and software as just a means to get as quickly as possible past the routine and to the novelty-horizon of whatever I am working on. So my dream setup would simply be to have some combination of secretarial staff and predictive algorithm that can figure out at every moment what I need done but am not interested in doing myself and do it for me. Barring that I think my setup right now is pretty efficient.

If I could ask for a marginal improvement in technology it would be to allow me to compose emails easily in all possible situations as unobtrusively as possible. Thoughts arrive at any old time and I want to get them down as soon as I have them organized. I would like to come as close to direct transcription of my thoughts as possible. Siri is getting closer because I can dictate emails even in my car while driving. But I can't use Siri when I am in the middle of a conversation and need to momentarily mentally check out to record an idea.

I could imagine some kind of device on my index finger where I can write words in air, even with my hands in my pockets, and the device figures out what i am writing and puts it in an email addressed to me.

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