The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

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Samuel Arbesman

Samuel Arbesman

Writer, complexity scientist


Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Sam Arbesman and I'm a complexity scientist and writer. I'm currently a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. I conduct research related to computational social science, such as how scientific discovery works and the nature of cities, and I also do a whole lot of popular writing, which appears in such places as Wired and The Atlantic. My first book The Half-Life of Facts was published last year.

What hardware do you use?

My hardware is a reasonably straightforward setup. My primary computer is an 11-inch MacBook Air with 4 gigs of RAM. In my office I have a 28-inch Apple Monitor, a Bluetooth Apple Keyboard, and a Magic Mouse. I also have a 13-inch MacBook from 2007 that is nearly decommissioned, but aside for a battery that's dead, works well.

And I have an iPhone 4S. I was an extremely late adopter of a smart phone, and only got one in late 2011, after my colleagues poked fun at my basic flip phone, which was overly simple and out-of-date even four years earlier when I first got it. This late adoption is prevalent in most of my technological life when it comes to hardware: I got a Kindle five years after its release and only got a DVD player when it was given to me for free.

And what software?

For my research and programming, most of my work is done in the language of Python, supplemented by scipy, numpy, and networkx packages. I use a combination of the Terminal and TextWrangler for this. Also R. I was recently introduced to Sublime Text 2, which is supposed to be amazing, though I haven't yet gotten the hang of it.

For my writing, I use several tools, depending on the project. For scientific papers, I use TeXShop, which is a great implementation of LaTeX. For shorter popular writing, I use Microsoft Word. And for longer writing projects, such as books, I use Scrivener. Scrivener is an incredible writing tool and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It allows me to chunk up my ideas, rearrange them, throw huge amounts of notes and other background material into a single file (and organize it well), and compile this whole mess into a document my editors find acceptable. For my management of citations and bibliography, I use Mendeley, which is a really good free program that can work with both Word and LaTeX.

For data visualization, I use gephi for networks, an amazingly powerful tool which many describe as "Photoshop for networks." For graphs and data plots, I use a somewhat unwieldy and defunct undiscovered gem called Plot 0.997.

For social media, my Twitter life occurs in YoruFukurou on my desktop and, secondarily, in Echofon on my iPhone. YoruFukurou (which apparently means "Night Owl" in Japanese) is extremely powerful for filtering and reading tweets, but doesn't overwhelm me with information. I use NetNewsWire for the rapidly dwindling number of RSS feeds that I still follow (fewer than ten), as Twitter has supplanted my webpage discovery process.

What would be your dream setup?

I'm pretty happy with what I have. But I do know that any setup I choose would not involve holding my hands out in front of me, like in Minority Report. This seems exhausting.