When How I Work was just an idea, the Lifehacker team made a “yeah right, in your dreams, probably not gonna happen” list of people the series would feature. Cory Doctorow was towards the top of that list.
He’s a hero of ours, and here are a few reasons why: He co-edits Boing Boing, one of the best blogs on the web. He writes award-winning sci-fi novels (as well as other fiction and non-fiction) and releases everything in print and under Creative Commons. He’s a leader in the fight to make digital media free and easily sharable. He’s been called “the William Gibson of his generation”. He has an xkcd comic dedicated to him, where he descends from “the blogosphere” wearing a red cape. Seriously.
We caught up with Cory to find out what gear he can’t live without, the best advice he’s ever received, and the reason he jumped the Apple ship after nearly 30 years.
Current gig: writer, blogger, activist, journalist
Location: Hackney, London, England
Current mobile device: Nexus 4
Current computer: Thinkpad X230 (replace a X220 that I dumped a cup of coffee into while touring last month — has a new 600GB Intel SSD that I just swapped from the old machine to the new)
One word that best describes how you work: diligently
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
Ubuntu and the suite of GNU tools in any robust Unix system. A good text editor (currently Gedit) — I keep all of my working files at .txts. A robust, highly configurable browser (Firefox/Firefox for Android). A fast RSS reader (presently Google Reader, likely to be Newsblur next). A tetherable mobile connection — I use EasyTether for Android to circumvent tether-blocking as deployed by some of the carriers I use around the world, especially Rogers in Canada. AirDroid for moving files on/off Android devices in my life. An external USB battery (currently PowerGen 5200mAh External Battery Pack).
A rugged, roomy, weatherproof backpack (currently a Bagjack Skidcat). A moneyclip. A small, six-card credit-card wallet. LibreOffice spreadsheets for bookkeeping. GPG, cryptsetup and TrueCrypt for information security. A high-performance mailer with functional scripting engine (currently Thunderbird with a lot of rules and a huge blacklisted kill file and white-listed address book). A titanium Widgy keychain prybar (pictured at right) — useful as a pocket knife but flies (heh) under TSA/BAA radar. No-name, easy to replace earbuds with integrated mic for phone. Exeze waterproof MP3 player for swimming. AquaSphere Seal swim goggles — I swim everyday for about an hour and listen to last night’s CBC’s As It Happens news podcast. Exeze + Aquasphere are a reasonably priced, reliable goggles/MP3 combo. GoToob silicone bottles for shampoo/soap for the pool — these have strong, reliable suction cups that stick them perfectly to the shower wall.
A no-name, cheap mini screwdriver set — I get these confiscated about six times a year by airport security, especially the jerks at Gatwick airport, but it’s worth buying a new set every time. Catering-sized sachets of Tabasco — these don’t show up as liquid on airport scanners, unlike the mini bottles. I put Tabasco on everything. I’d use it for contact-lens solution if I could. Aeropress — the single most versatile and reliable way of making coffee, especially on the road. Perfect when paired with a Porlex hand-grinder.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have a mancave that’s almost as big as our flat in East London, right beneath the London Hackspace. I have a desk up on breezeblocks that I can use as a standing desk, or with a cut-down treadmill, or with a tall lab chair. I have a Thinkpad dock attached to encrypted backup drive; high-quality, electrically isolated microphone; large monitor; external keyboard/mouse (Logitech Anywhere MX); external speakers; webcam, etc. Most of the stuff at the office is purely sentimental or storage (authors’ copies take up a lot of room), but I couldn’t live without my postal scales and stash of postage (minimising wait-times at the stupid post awful). And my Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I read through an articulated, illuminated circular magnifying lamp.
Pictured above: A panorama of Cory’s workspace.
What do you listen to while you work?
I use Banshee for GNU/Linux, and my daily playlist is a shuffled dynamic list of songs rated 4 or 5 stars that I haven’t listened to in 30 days or more.
What’s your best time-saving trick?
Anything I type into email more than twice I turn into a QuickText macro that I can invoke with a keyword and tab. I do this especially for repetitive questions and FAQs.
I also generally refuse to do email “interviews” except where I can dictate the answers and send a recording to the interviewer to transcribe at her/his end. I think this is a good balance between the laziness and convenience of “interviewing” someone by sending him a ton of short essay questions (“what is art?” “what is virtue?”)
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
My Exeze underwater MP3 player. Swimming is AMAZING for my awful, crippling back pain, but it gets boring. Adding an hour-long newscast like As It Happens makes it fly past.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
Making breakfast. I make my family a 3-4 course, hot/cold tailor-made breakfast every morning, in 20 minutes flat, with handmade coffees.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’m an early riser. I get up at 5am with my daughter. I use Klaxon for Android as my alarm and an MP3 of a loon call as the alarm tone.
Fill in the blank. I’d kill to see ________ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Write every day. When you write every day, it becomes a habit and you do it automatically. Habits are things you get for free.
Is there anything else you want to add for readers/fans?
I used Apple products from 1979 (Apple ][+) until 2006, when I switched to Thinkpads running Ubuntu and, shortly thereafter, Android phones. It was infinitely easier than I expected, and has been revolutionary in terms of ease, convenience, and reliability.
No computer company in the world has a warranty program to match the extended warranty on the ThinkPads. For about $US50 per year, you get next-day, on-site hardware replacement. That means that if your ThinkPad breaks down, the next day, a technician from IBM Global Services will come over to your house or office, pretty much anywhere in the world (IBM Global is GLOBAL) and fix it on your desk or kitchen table.
When I was a CIO, I used to write POs for $US1MM+ worth of Apple equipment a year. The best day of AppleCare’s life can’t touch the worst day of the ThinkPad warranty. When you use something every day and earn your living with it, you need something that fails at least as well as it works.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.