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 Leonard Lin

Leonard Lin

Independent technologist

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Leonard Lin, an independent technologist. Most recently I've been spending most of my time working on VR and cryptocurrency related projects. Previously I spent more than a few years building custom photo/media hardware and software for my company Lensley Automatic, and before that I co-founded, ran the Hack Program at Yahoo!, built tech for the Obama '08 campaign, and helped start Code for America.

I've also been wandering around the world for about 4 years now (40+ countries), mostly traveling with a medium-sized (31L) backpack with a "one-in-one-out" gear policy (much easier to stick to when you carry it all on your back). I spend more time than anyone probably should thinking about gear, gadgets, and general yak-shaving.

What hardware do you use?

I'm constantly swapping stuff out, so take this as a condensed, point in time (early 2018) snapshot. In the past I've sometimes listed my gear on Kit and defunct sites like Bagcheck, or on my (rarely updated) travel blog. I'll start with my travel gear and then see how far I get.

I exclusively used Apple laptops for almost 15 years, but due to each version of the hardware and software progressively getting worse, and my requirements for VR capable platforms, I have almost completely phased out Macs from my life. I went through a number of esoteric portable VR workstation setups, but there are now compact (2kg/2L) VR capable laptop options like the Gigabyte AERO 14 available. As I'm not doing VR dev while traveling anymore, I have switched to the lightest computing solution possible (with decent battery life). I am currently using a cheap Asus Chromebook Flip C302 (I booted into it once to claim some free GDrive storage and then promptly chrx'd GalliumOS on it). The build quality is surprising good and it handles regular compute duties without any issues. It is light enough that it works well with an Anker Multi-Angle Stand (designed for tablets and smartphones) which I use alongside a decent portable keyboard (Vortex Pure Pro, Filco Majestouch MINILA Air, Model 01, and most recently, a custom KDfans YD60BLE-based 60%) and a Bluetooth mouse (Logitech MX Master).

As the C302 is USB-C, I am now living the dongle life. I am using an Olycam Aerofara hub (there are a lot of tradeoffs when picking one it turns out) which has gigabit ethernet, 4KP30 HDMI, 3 x USB-A 3.0, SDXC and microSD slots (that can be used simultaneously) and USB-C PD passthrough support (49W max). For charging I use the Anker PowerPort Speed PD 5 (this is the newest version with an updated IC for better compatibility and can supply PD up to 30W). For international power, I've long used ultracompact cube plug adapters I've picked up in Asia (in the US, the Lenmar TraveLite is of that design; it is the smallest volume, is a single piece, and works everywhere in the world I've traveled to so far) and a Monster OTG400 power strip (no longer in production it seems). Recently, I revisited to see if there's anything better and I am currently trying out the Road Warrior Power Strip/Adapter set which is a slightly lighter and less volume combo. Spare batteries are a must, and I've found that small slim form-factor batteries with built in cables seem to work the best for me. I have a 3000mAh iNiCE battery I keep in my jacket pocket as an emergency spare recharge, and a 5000mAh version that I am currently shooting off (vs the Luxtude 5000mAh) at the moment. Sometimes I travel with a bigger power bank like the RAVPower 23000mAh which offers 9-20V/4.5A output that can be useful for DC powering various gear. In terms of additional miscellaneous gadgets, I am currently testing the RAVPower FileHub Plus (WD03) vs the BlazeDrive Wifi HD enclosure for computer-less photo/video transfer and portable wireless media hub duties.

In terms of other primary devices, I travel with an iPad Pro 10.5" + Apple Pencil in a dirt cheap Maxace case that works well as a stand and keeps the Pencil well attached, and recently added a reMarkable Eink tablet. I am using an unlocked iPhone X as my primary mobile device (using various prepaid T-Mobile SIM cards for the free global roaming although I pick up local data SIMs if I am in a country for longer than a few days). I tend to carry at least an iOS and a late model Android mobile device, although the exact device count/models change enough to not really be worth mentioning. While I'm focusing on travel gear, I have a menagerie of computers at home - my main workstation is a Ryzen 7 / GTX 1080Ti on an Open Benchtable (that folds up flat and that I have traveled with before!) and a single LG 32UD99-W. My favorite feature of this monitor is that it has no logo on the bezel. Having a big screen is a really nice thing and if I end up in one place for more than a few weeks at a time I will usually try to get one locally (and then sell, donate, or store it when I'm done).

I listen to a lot of music, so I'll mention that while I'm traveling (or when I'm out and about anywhere, honestly) I have a pair of FitEar ToGo 334s that are my favs. I have a variety of portable DACs but one I just picked up that I like is the Advanced Accessport, which gives a bit more power if I need to drive something beefier, but more importantly, has a Lightning charging pass-through for charging while listening. It does all this without affecting pocketability or battery life much, and has a durable braided cord. One must-have audio accessory I carry around is an iFi iEMatch or Ear Buddy - while the former has some more options and slightly better specs, the latter is cheaper, lighter and more durable and seems to do the job just as well - these are must haves for plugging sensitive IEMs into higher power source outputs (like the aforementioned DAC or any airplane seat). I have a rando pair of sport BT headsets (Mee X7 Plus) and BT speakers (JBL Go, Fugoo Tough) primarily for phone calls, workouts, computer audio, etc. Recently I've been trying out lots of BT dongles. My current favorite is the EarStudio ES100. One last audio related piece of equipment - I carry a pair of Earasers earplugs with me just about everywhere - these are incredibly discreet and comfortable and perform almost as well as my old custom-molded Etymotic Musicians Earplugs for clarity/flat attenuation. Absolutely recommended for anyone who ever frequents music venues.

I like to shoot photos, and it's a good excuse to visit new places around the world. I carry an Olympus EM1m2 on a Luma Labs Arca Loop with a PanaLeica Summilux 15mm as my walkaround prime and the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm as the weatherproof/bombproof tourist lens. For the past year or so I've been using a DJI Mavic Pro with a couple spare batteries (carried in a generic vacuum-form style hardshell case and li-po safe bags), but I have a Mavic Air that's just shipped and I'm looking forward to the weight savings. The most useful shooting accessory I've discovered (I carry a few, they're so useful) is the LensPen. These things are magical and I recommend them for anyone that cares about maximizing the image quality of their gear when out and about.

All this gear is carried primarily in a backpack and a laptop/side bag (carry-on only) when I travel. As there are a lot of electronics and I've found myself in everything from monsoons, to tropical storms, to blizzards, to flash floods while I've been traveling, weatherproofing is a big deal for me. The past few years I've used an Ortlieb MountainX 31 backpack and have largely yet to find anything better. While it's "only" IP64 rated, it is seam welded, uses PU-coated nylon that is 100,000mm rated and has taken a tremendous amount of personal punishment without yet giving up the ghost. It has slightly more organization than your typical drybag, and while largely a top-loader, it has a beefy transverse TIZIP Masterseal 10 zipper for slightly easier access (depending on how things are packed).

I'm a bit of a bag geek, and as I'm servicing the Ortlieb at the moment (replacing hip and chest strap components that have been lost on my travels) I am doing a bit of exploring on the bag front. I'm using a new RMU Core Pack 35L on my current trip, which seems to be fine, although I'm still figuring all the straps and I'm a bit unsure of just how water/snowproof it really is (it'll have a bit of a trial by fire coming shortly as I head to Hokkaido next).

For even better waterproofing, I have a Subtech Pro Drybag 2.0 on order but I also recognize that there are real tradeoffs and that I might be better off with a panel loading bag that has better features (eg, like a Mystery Ranch Ravine) and simply switch to using something like the SeaToSummit Ultra-Sil Nano drysacks for wrapping up my gear (which are currently in a combination of generic packing cubes and and mesh pockets; incidentally, I also carry a SeaToSummit Ultra-Sil Travel Day Pack which is 68g and packs into itself as an ultra-compact day/backup bag). While I feel like I'm still not a master packer, I will say that the Velcro Brand One Wrap Thin Ties are by far the thinnest and best cable management solution I've tried (yes, I've tried a lot; pro tips: wrap them with the velcro side on the inside to avoid ruining delicate Merino wool clothing (learned through expensive experience), cut them so they only wrap once or twice around your desired wrapping, move the tie to one end (I use the head end) and loop your cables so that the tie wraps both endpoints). As for my laptop/underseat bag: I currently use an ugly as sin Aquapac Stormproof. What it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for by doing an admirable job of keeping my gear dry (it was also dirt cheap, it may be discontinued).

OK, even I'm getting bored of typing all this out. If you've made it this far, I'll just skip most of the rest and just name one or two highlights/lowlights of my travel gear journey. A couple years back while in Japan I found the best nail clippers ever, the Green Bell G-1111s. This may be the best designed and crafted item I carry around with me, and I'm not lacking for fancy (or at least expensively utilitarian) kit. You may be asking yourself if a $20 set of nail clippers could possibly be worth it? The answer is yes, absolutely. If you see these somewhere (Tokyu Hands (the best!) or Loft in Japan usually have them in stock) just buy them. No regrets.

I've been upgrading my weatherproof gear for some time, and one of the most important parts of that is my shell. I made the mistake (twice) with TAD Gear outerwear, first with the Stealth Hoodie LT, and then with a replacement Raptor shell. While they look great, both ended up not lasting a year (the former did well in all kinds of rough adventure but the taped seams started completely peeling and the latter started pilling w/o any rough use at all). I've since switched to an Arc'teryx Alpha SV (arguably what I should have started with anyway, considering my year-round moderate adventurism and constant travel) which seems to have worn well so far, but I plan on making full use of their warranty/repair service if I run into future issues. I tend to go with grey for my outerwear since it's low-key and still does okay in direct sunlight/warm weather (never go with black no matter how tacticool you think it makes you look).

Outside of travel, I've gone through and use way too much computer gear and electronics gear to mention (dozens of different ARM SBC boards and microcontrollers, PCs of all shapes and sizes) and tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of unique camera/imaging equipment and other esoteric hardware. While I've been largely nomadic, I've recently settled into a new place, largely to be able to migrate my electronics workbench (a large VR space is a nice bonus as well, especially as my Vive is now fully untethered, first with a backpack PC, and now with a TPCast). In general I have more gadgets to go through than hours in the day. Lately I've been playing with Bluetooth protocol reverse engineering, NFC cloning, mobile fingerprint sensors with embedded systems, and trying to figure out if it's possible to make a more capable cinematography drone than DJI can in the same size envelope (maybe not without significantly more focus/time investment than I've given it so far).

And what software?

While I've been using Linux for over 20 years now, on the desktop side, while I'd occasionally dip my toes back in, it had always been easier and more productive for me to use Macs since OS X was introduced. The tides started turning for me as first I started having more and more problems using Macs with a fleet of production machines that I used for Lensley (almost all eventually switched to tiny PCs running Ubuntu LTS). Each Mac OS upgrade started making my life noticeably worse, but the devolution of the Macbook hardware was the final straw and I decided it'd be worth the effort to get serious about switching off and optimizing/customizing my computing environment. After an abortive attempt to use Ubuntu, I ended building again from the ground up with Arch Linux (yak-shaving over a month fixing broken things in the evenings while touring through New Zealand in a minivan camper). I have a fairly customized openbox windowing setup (plenty of custom shortcuts, including a shortcut to easily edit and reload my rc.xml and menus whenever and I decide to add anything new, and compton, hsetroot, tint2, albert, clipit among other helper utilities), and I spend a lot of my time in urxvt, fish, byobu and vim. I strongly prefer dark color schemes these days and I've largely standardized around Base16 Ocean. I love how Source Code Pro looks and I use the Powerline patched version. My dotfiles are private and I've switched from using dots to dotdrop for dotfile management across multiple machines. I haven't completely switched to my Model 01 keyboard, but I have made some firmware tweaks to make my life easier with terminal management and the like when using it. For my other keyboards I make use of setxkbmap and xcape primary to turn capslock into a dual super/esc key.

Despite the strides that Linux has made on the desktop/laptop, I do find myself booting into Windows for Lightroom, DaVinci Resolve (which I liked so much that I bought a Studio dongle), and VR, although I look forward to the day when I won't have to (virtualization with IOMMU support on consumer hardware? Finding Linux-based alternatives, or in the case of Resolve, getting the Linux version of the software to work?)

These days I find myself spending more time doing research and analysis, devops/janitorial work, poking around with hardware, or simply rat-holing into internet esoterica than doing pure development, but when I get around to it, Python is still by far my preferred programming language, and I tend to use it even when I probably shouldn't. Every developer probably also has some of their favorite "hidden gem" tools - mine include ptpython (a kickass REPL), ripgrep (insanely fast good text search) and nethogs (per-process network usage - incredibly important when you're on metered internet). Along those lines, Mosh is also incredibly useful when on bad internet.

A lot of my work runs online, and I find myself running on a lot of AWS services, with a few standalone servers in the mix. My new home network is on gigabit fiber with Ubiquiti gear, so I've found myself doing more with my home network these days as well. Lately I've been on a bit of a security kick and have found it surprisingly easy to setup TOTP 2FA (in addition to keys) for SSH logins. I use a combination of SSH tunnels, Shadowsocks, and OpenVPN. (I use SSH a lot and over the years have assembled quite a few scripts for tunneling, reverse tunneling, and chaining connections.)

While I still depend on 1Password for most of my account logins, these days I am also TOTP 2FA'd and U2F hardware keyed out the wazoo. It feels like there should be some way to unify this in a way that make more sense, but there are advantages to separating some of these things out as well. (My personal security audit and security stance are topics for their own in-depth writeups probably, I sat down last year to go through everything and try to tighten my ship as much as possible.)

Like most people, I end up depending on a lot of online services. Lots of GApps/GSuites. I'm on a number of Slacks, Discords, and also run my own Matrix/Riot services. I've switched to encrypted chat where convenient/possible, including Signal (until I couldn't migrate my conversations when I upgraded my phone), WhatsApp, and FB secret messages.

I read and write a lot, and primarily use Pocket Premium as my dumping ground/TOREAD backlog. I am also a heavy Evernote user (along with the web clipper), although with over 10,000 notes, hundreds of notebooks, and a completely ineffectual search, it's practically useless to me these days for even basic information retrieval. I do most of my writing and organization now in Dropbox Paper and most recently, Notion. I've also found myself enjoying taking notes with the Apple Pencil in GoodNotes (the best fit for me of all the iPad apps I've tried) but I'm constantly on the lookout for a better note-taking solution. I won't even get started on task management, which is a complete mess for me. I'm currently using Wunderlist and lots of scattered text files for TODOS and Asana for tasks with deadlines - I've long since come to terms with all of this being messy, lossy, and only vaguely useful, although I do subscribe to the GTD philosophy of writing things down and clearing them from my mind. Sufficiently important things tend to pop back up.

For travel, I've used TripIt Pro for a long time and it continues to (sloooowly) get incrementally more useful (that being said, TSA Pre, Global Entry, and an APEC card give a lot more bang for your buck on the travel convenience front). Airbnb and are my go-to's for lodgings, and Google Flight's continent-destination view is a great tool for jengaing together last minute flight plans. I'm trying to do a better job with centralizing and figuring out my travel point situation, but while I feel like I would appreciate the benefits, it's never risen anywhere near the top of my TODO list. Also, while it's fallen out of favor, I use Foursquare a lot, and I find it useful both from a QS perspective (I use the API to collect my checkins for historical purposes and live city updates on my map) and in terms of global recommendations, where it still tends to do surprisingly well (presumably thanks to fellow diehards).

What would be your dream setup?

In my ideal world, I'd like to drastically condense the amount of gear that I carry - a single lightweight compute brick with low latency, high bandwidth, and seamless communications with both remote computing resources and local lightweight tactile input, gestural sensing, audio interfaces, mixed reality glasses, and maybe a sunlight-readable tablet. Until we get to that future, I'll unpack my near-term desires a bit more.

We'll be seeing lightweight, all-in-one HMDs w/ 6DOF tracking this year. These will have about 2K/eye resolution at about 90 degree FOVs, which actually give decent pixel densities for migrating 2D/desktop computing onto virtual screens. Another doubling would be nice, but those and a decent bluetooth split keyboard/thumbstick combo and some inside-out hand tracking would get you a long way towards (and maybe even past) traditional multi-monitor desktop-level productivity on the road. A hybrid set that could also wirelessly interface with something like the Intel Hades Canyon NUC for more local horsepower might be nice as well, although given good Internet, streaming compute with decent latency might be a practical alternative.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to condense to a single does-everything imaging device as well - while I love the traditional feel of shooting with something like my X100S, I would give that all up for some sort of next generation waterproof/sealed Light L16-style brick that uses computational photography to outperform much larger sensors and that could capture stereo, wide angle, depth mapped or light field style images and video, and that would also capture GPS and other metadata and have seamless (BT5?) sharing/backup to other devices. Those last requirements are actually a requirement for any future camera I buy. I'm completely over the terrible wifi syncing current standalone cameras offer.

Being able to attach that level of imaging onto an aerial cinematography platform around the size of the new Mavic Air would be pretty incredible. Drones have made huge leaps in ease of use and convenience, and I feel like we're just around the corner from truly consumer friendly drones - 360 degree safety sensing and navigation, and the ability to simply toss it up and have it follow you around or do some pre-programmed shots would be my big asks (the new Skydio drone does this but the image quality doesn't clear the bar for me). If I was able to easily script my DJI drone's flight plan, I wouldn't feel much of a desire to build my own (well, playing with some of those new compact LIDAR sensors would still be neat).

Getting enough juice for these devices is of course one of the biggest issues, and I'd love to see commercially available Li-S based batteries, followed up with Zinc Air or Li-Air - basically anything that could drastically increase energy density for batteries. I'd like for all my devices (batteries and gear) to properly support tethered charging via USB-C PD, full stop. Having all USB-C cables would also simplify the current wire bag.

In terms of audio, high quality (aptX HD, LDAC) wireless support and adapters would be amazing, and it looks like we're getting there. I'm looking forward to the oncoming revolutions in personalized HRTFs, super advanced NC, and the like.

I've talked a bit about better bags, but what I've yet to find personally are well designed pants with zippered pockets. Much moreso than as a theft deterrent, I've simply found zippered pockets to be the best way to not have things falling out when on the move, jumping between multiple modes or transportation, usually in a rush. Sadly, like with waterproofing, you have to make some big tradeoffs. The solution may be to bite the bullet and simply go bespoke and get zippers sewn into pants that I like.

So far, I've primarily been talking about gear, which honestly, while there are some quality of life improvement gains, aren't what really bug me on a day-to-day level. It's all about the software. I consistently feel that the state of my life would be improved tremendously on just about every front if software and services were just improved a bit (or a lot).

At the top of my list is probably having a single system for ingesting, tracking, and filing my reading, notes, and tasks. This system would also be designed for later review, recall, and research, and facilitate eventual publishing and sharing. It's a tall order, but man, that'd be nice. Good local file search is something I dream about that no one else seems to care about.

I like the idea of QS and have done some personal tracking, but it'd be nice if those provided better analysis and visualization, but also more importantly, if there were better ways of turning the collected data into truly actionable information (some sort of dynamic habit-forming engine to help you reach your goals might be a start).

I've found the state of window management (specifically as it applies to task switching, and historical context) to be incredibly lacking, and I think that the promise of infinite screen-space via XR makes this sort of thing even more important.

I think one thing worth pointing out is how important I think that all of this incredibly personal data and metadata should be protected. Existing software and services almost entirely fail on this front, and it worries the hell out of me. Ignoring those concerns, having actually smart software and services would be a godsend. I would gladly welcome our benevolent AI-driven predictive overlords/personal assistants.