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 Xanda Schofield

Xanda Schofield

Computer science lecturer, Cornell

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name's Xanda Schofield. I'm a PhD candidate and lecturer at Cornell University in computer science. My main research focuses on how to learn things from large collections of unlabeled text: books, emails, Reddit posts, or whatever you might be interested in.

What hardware do you use?

This is all over the place for me. Right now, my main go-to laptop is a 2016 Surface Book with a 256 GB SSD, 8 GB RAM, and a dual-core Intel i5 processor. However, I've never had particularly strong opinions about what computer I was using, as I rarely run anything exciting on it directly aside from the occasional video game I'm playing. Before this, I was using a refurbished Macbook happily for several years. I expect my next computer will also be a Surface Book; it's light, and like having the ability to use it in tablet mode so I can write notes live for my classes without feeling like I'm trading off performance.

At work, I have a Dell machine that's pretty good for a several-year-old generic-issue computer from my department: it has 16 GB RAM and a quad-core processor. The only issue is that it doesn't have a lot of disk space: I like having a ton of disk available for when I want to run experiments on, say, 1 million news articles. For this, I tend to SSH into our shared compute cluster for my group, which has a 20 TB file server and an HTCondor cluster with lots of 128 GB RAM/48 core nodes on it. That's usually much more effective.

And what software?

I use lots of special-purpose programs for my research, but these are the big players in my life.

Visual Studio Code. I write a lot of types of files: JavaScript/CSS/HTML, Python, Java, C, LaTeX, and bash scripts are all in rotation these days. I used to be a frequent vim user but never had the memory for all of the shortcuts. However, I also couldn't find a text editor that supported all the things I was fast at doing in vim: the things with more functionality were usually language-specific or slow to load or both, and I'd struggle to figure out how to set it up the way I wanted. Then, one summer interning at Microsoft, someone told me about Visual Studio Code, and I've absolutely sworn by it since. It opens nearly as fast as Notepad, but it also lints my Python code while compiling LaTeX and previewing it for me and syncing with Git and spellchecking. I use it on Linux. That's how much of a crazy fan I am.

OneNote. Another Microsoft product. I use this for both taking notes for myself and to handwrite notes for my class. My students love the rainbow pen; I love the easy interface for access. My only complaint is that sometimes exporting to PDFs can be a pain: OneNote 2016 did this well, but OneNote for Windows 10 does not.

Chrome. I sold my soul to Google a long time ago, and have an Android phone and both personal and university Gmail, so it's pretty natural to use Chrome. I use a number of extensions with it: AdBlock Plus, Hangouts for Desktop, Marinara, Google Scholar Button, and Zotero are probably the biggest ones for me. I don't know how I'd write papers without the latter three.

Spotify. I used to make playlists for fun a lot. I do this less now, but I still like having music on when I work.

Dropbox. I spent a long time avoiding paying for more than free-tier storage but eventually caved for Dropbox. I find myself digging up several-year-old writing a lot, so it's nice to have a large archive available, particularly given my computer doesn't have a huge amount of disk space.

Overleaf. I was a big ShareLaTeX fan for years, particularly because I write a lot of papers last-minute with collaborators, so shared LaTeX editing is really helpful. Now it's merged with Overleaf, but it still seems to have the functionality I like! The fact that it syncs with Zotero and Dropbox makes it even better.

Zotero. This is what I use to manage my citations. Nothing strong to say about it, I just need a tracker for these things.

Slack. I am on too many Slacks. I don't think that's particularly unique. But I do like the desktop app okay so I can keep all of them open without all the tabs.

f.lux. I work late a lot. I don't know if adjusting the blue light from the screen really does anything to help my brain, but even if it's the placebo effect, I think I've had more luck sleeping since I started using it.

What would be your dream setup?

Honestly, I'm pretty happy with the setup I have: Windows tablet for travel/lecture/fun, Linux desktop for serious work sessions. On my desk, I have one normal monitor set up in "portrait" alignment that I use to read documents and write code, and one reeeeally wide monitor so I can put windows next to each other. I have a cheap ergonomic keyboard (a Microsoft Sculpt - seriously, I didn't mean to be this much of a Microsoft fan, but here we are) on a keyboard tray. No standing desk for me. I guess the only things I could ask for are more memory and more SSDs. I can always use more space.