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Schuyler Towne

Schuyler Towne

Security anthropologist, research scholar (Ronin Institute)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Schuyler Towne, a security anthropologist and research scholar at the Ronin Institute. I've been an independent academic for about 7 years now, following a brief stint as a competitive lockpicker. One passion lead pretty directly to the other. My areas of focus are in the history of mechanical security technologies and the ways in which those technologies have affected society. I also think a lot about modern human interaction with security technologies, mechanical and otherwise.

As tight a niche as I have dedicated myself to, I have found incredible variety within it. Some of my favorite research subjects thus far include the Kroekel Boys, a trio of deaf brother lockpickers who routinely made the papers for a few years in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey around the turn of the prior century; the Great Lock Controversy of 1851, a watershed moment in the history of security; the disputed origins of the keyed lock; and the current developments in the smart lock market. Presently I am investigating the security-related behaviors of low risk communities as a way to better understand the social and cultural aspects of security.

And if you are asking yourself how I can make a living doing any of that? I can't! Though I do get the occasional consulting gig, I make my living as a shift manager at Starbucks.

What hardware do you use?

I have a small workshop in my basement that I've only recently mangled into usable shape. It features a Shapeoko 2 that my wife & I received as a gift at our wedding. Thus far I've used it to cut out a few clunky test versions of a model combination lock, but I'm hoping to gain some competency and tackle new projects at some point. I have a nice little mini mill that a machinist friend set me up with - it's just the right size for anything I would ever want to do, which is primarily making cutaways of locks and the occasional jig for the Shapeoko or other small parts.

For key cutting I have a very nice older model manual key cutter/duplicator that my Grampa picked up cheaply at an auction. For storage in the shop I have a cheap workbench, a portable Keter work table my father gave me that I like a great deal, and, my favorite, a bank of 30 safe deposit boxes on wheels. I wish I could offer up a link for where you could get your own, but you can't, really. I consulted on a TV show called "Sliced" several years ago, and the boxes were a prop. At the end of 3 days on set I received a call saying "Hey, we're just going to throw these things away unless you want them." So, a friend with a truck helped me pick them up, I slapped on 4 heavy duty casters and they've been with me ever since. In the first apartment I shared with my wife we used them as a coffee table.

Outside of the workshop I have a few pieces of specialty equipment. In particular, I have a nice, but super affordable microscope that I use for lock forensics work. Early on I received recommendations for USB microscopes to buy, but they were either brutally expensive or horribly inadequate with no apparent middle ground. Then, I stumbled on Amscope's adapter rings for DSLR cameras. My wife is a photographer and has often loaned me her Canon Mark II for videography, lock photography, and even macro lock photography, so I figured I could take that a step further and attach it directly to a microscope. With that, my $100 microscope became a high definition lock forensics rig that I have used to both conduct my own research and teach classes at conferences around the country.

I also do a lot of writing and sketching. I have myriad small notebooks laying in every room, car, bag and pocket I own. They are usually of the pocket-sized, kraft paper covered, stapled spine variety. Once in a while I try to organize them, label them, use them for a single purpose, but it never lasts. About once a year, or as the spirit moves me, I'll gather up as many of them as I can find and try to type up the notes, which really just leads to a digital equivalent of the same thing. Dozens of decontextualized text files scattered across slowly aging computers.

I use computers of course, but pretty ambivalently. Whenever something breaks or becomes dramatically slow/outdated I'll buy something cheap, often a refurb, to replace it. I briefly flirted with a very nice tablet that I received as a birthday present, but then one of my clients stepped on it at a gig and I've never been able to successfully repair it. The only piece of digital equipment I consistently rely on is my Tascam DR-05 audio recorder.

And what software?

For writing, including the answers to these questions, I almost exclusively use Sublime Text. I began working with Sublime back when I was a front end web developer, and found that it best fits my typical method of writing. I've been writing somewhat seriously in a wide variety of contexts for about 15 years now, and never found a program that I have enjoyed writing in as much as Sublime. Years ago I loved Q10, a super minimalist, distraction free text editor, and in many ways Sublime replicates that experience by stripping away spell/grammar checking, word counts, page counts, etc. At the same time, my scattershot note taking is well managed by some very powerful text and file manipulation tools. For final drafts of significant papers, I used to rely on OpenOffice Writer, but now that I'm in college & get the Microsoft Office suite for free I've returned to Word for the first time in well over a decade and am kind of stunned by how pleasant an experience I've had with it.

For collaborative writing and editing I typically use Google Docs, just because it is often very easy for the other party, but my strong preference is Draft, and if you tool around on the site you'll likely pick up on why I love it. Just like Q10 and Sublime it is a clean, distraction free interface, but the collaboration/editing/diff tools are excellent.

Despite now having access to PowerPoint, I still prefer OpenOffice Impress for slide decks. This is likely just because I know how to work quickly in it and I know I can get it up and running on any computer I might have to use.

I'm yet to find a solution I like for organizing research. I've used Zotero to good effect in my X-Locks poject, and I doubt I could say enough good things about it, however it doesn't quite fit the way I like to work, especially when it comes to bringing on outside researchers. I was briefly playing with something called Peerbase that appears to have gone to ground, but it was definitely promising.

The only other software I use regularly is for what little design work I do anymore. I actually still use Adobe Flash once in a while to bash out quick animations. Early in 2015 I ran a one hour conference session called "Let's make a lock!" where I gave a 20 minute crash course in lock engineering to a room of about 20 people, then we collaboratively designed a new lock. I wanted to show them how their incredibly elaborate new lock might operate, so after the session I mocked up an animation in Flash. For more involved lock animations I rely on Blender. For any 2D graphics and often just to help me think visually through a 3 dimensional problem, I use Adobe Illustrator.

What would be your dream setup?

I've been having a hard time with this one. Looking back on my current setup the running theme is "cheap or free" whether I saved something from the trash, received it as a gift, or gained access to it when I started school, and heck, even school is being paid for by Starbucks. I tend to look at most of the things I want and think "Yeesh, I can't spend that kind of money." All of that said, if I could set myself up with anything I wanted, I'd like to have a desk at a busy co-working space, as being around people and out of my house helps keep me productive. I'd love something like what the Ubuntu Edge promised, just a phone I could carry around and plug into a monitor as needed to get a full desktop experience. A modular collaborative research tool written in a language I can hack in would be pretty slick, I even have a pretty clear vision for the interface.

The only significant addition I'd love to make to my workshop is a Glowforge, oh, and a 3D printer of literally any variety, or even just access to one at that imagined co-working space. You know what, since I'm dreaming, let's throw in a Boomcase or the new Aiwa EXOS-9 just for fun. I've always wanted to be able to carry around my own sound solution for talks and parties.

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