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 Parker Higgins

Parker Higgins

Artist, activist (Freedom of the Press Foundation)

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Parker Higgins, and I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Before that, I was the Director of Copyright Activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I also an a 2017 alum of the Recurse Center, which is a wonderful programming community that helped me learn a lot of what I do and continues to be a source of inspiration.

I tweet too often at @xor and blog too seldom at my own site. I'm also a big fan of the microblogging software Mastodon, and I'm on the fediverse at @xor@mastodon.xyz.

When I'm not on the clock, I try to work on projects that reflect my thinking about big ideas like transparency, creativity, access to knowledge, and free culture. That sounds kind of lofty, but a lot of times the projects are pretty small. For the last few years, they've frequently manifested as Twitter bots.

A few years ago I found out that the US Department of Agriculture had a collection of thousands of watercolor paintings of fruits and nuts, which were beautiful --- and digitized --- but not available online beyond thumbnails. So I sent a Freedom of Information Act request for more info, wrote about the whole thing, and ultimately got the images released. I basically learned to program in order to upload them all to Wikimedia Commons and, eventually, run a Twitter bot (@pomological) that posts an image at random every three hours.

Another example is a site I run called FOIA The Dead, which started as a personal project but is now an official Freedom of the Press Foundation project. That one scrapes the New York Times obituary section each day and sends an automated request to the FBI for any files it has on the subjects of those obits. (There's a privacy exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that applies to living people, so those files would not have been available before that day.) Most of the time the FBI says it doesn't have anything, but through the power of automation I have gotten dozens of files making up thousands of pages. The most exciting part has been connecting with family members of people who didn't realize their parents or grandparents had come under FBI surveillance. I can't talk about all of those cases, but I was interviewed on the WNYC show Note To Self about one of them.

Beyond that, there's the emoji trainscape bot @choochoobot, some archiving work that I do on the job, and weird little things like spelling out words with three-letter airport codes.

What hardware do you use?

I do almost everything on a ThinkPad T460s that I specced out as far as I could afford to about two years ago. It's a really sturdy and reliable machine, and I intend to stick with it as long as I possibly can. Most of my work is not very computation-heavy, but I have felt the constraints of the machine when dabbling with machine-learning stuff, for example.

I'm a relatively late convert to the iPhone, but eventually the camera got good enough, and Android's claim to free software purity got bad enough, that I made the leap. I was happiest with an SE, but it eventually slowed down to the point that I had to make the upgrade to an iPhone 8. I'd like to think about my phone as little as possible.

When I'm shooting pictures I use an Olympus OM-D E-M10, mostly because it was Wirecutter's pick as a midrange mirrorless. But I've been really happy with the photos I've been able to get and have learned a lot about lenses and stuff.

All of my bots and my personal site and other projects live on a DigitalOcean box out there in the cloud somewhere, with a little bit of S3 thrown in for good measure.

And what software?

My desktop runs Xubuntu, which is of course a version of the popular Ubuntu OS with the lightweight Xfce desktop environment. For a long time I've been vaguely interested in "upgrading" to a more hardcore desktop situation, probably with a tiling window manager. Then again, at this point I mostly have open a browser with lots of tabs and a tmux session with lots of tabs, so it just doesn't make that big a difference.

For editing text, I usually use the very basic gedit program. When I'm writing code, vim. I've written some prose in vim but I'm still not yet facile enough with it and it kind of gets in my way. I'd like to learn enough to switch over all the way.

My blog runs on WordPress, which is truly inspirational as a piece of software, as an organization, and as a community. It's more than I need, though, and now that Github offers HTTPS for custom domains, I'm more likely than ever to switch over to a static site generator hosted there.

When I'm writing code, it's almost exclusively Python, with a little bit of JavaScript thrown in. When I was writing gotham-grabber, I got really excited about the browser automation stuff that you can do with Puppeteer, so I had to do a little bit of Node.

What would be your dream setup?

Honestly I feel like I'm close! I'd maybe get a nicer keyboard and I could always get a new camera lens, but I personally feel like I'm past the point where hardware or software is holding me back. What I need is a library full of reference books so I can learn everything that's already available to me.