The Setup

Interview

What do people use to get stuff done?

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Ben Welsh

Ben Welsh

Reporter, web developer (LA Times)

Posted

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Ben Welsh. My Internet handle is palewire. I work as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where I use computer programming tools to collect, organize, analyze and present large amounts of information. At The Times, I'm part of an informal group known as The Data Desk which, put simply, turns databases into news. That means building websites and writing stories. I recently gave a talk about the scope of our work, if you're interested in learning more.

I also chip in on open-source projects in my free time, most recently kickstarting an archive of news homepages called pastpages.org.

What hardware do you use?

Most of the time I use my Lenovo X220 Thinkpad. I've loved laptops sized around 13 inches since the original fat Macbooks that came out five or six years ago. They're not too heavy to lug around, but still big enough to mash my fat fingers on. I use my laptop both at home and at work, plugging it into an external Dell monitor at both locations to add a bigger screen to work with.

And what software?

I have Ubuntu 12.04 installed and use it for everything. Unlike every other developer on the planet, I actually like Ubuntu's new Unity user interface. I think the Ubuntu team is dead on. They need a stark redesign to grow across the new, fragmented landscape of desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets and smartphones. As a long-time user of GNOME Do, and before that Quicksilver, the new quick launch options are right in my wheelhouse. I love it.

When I'm working, I tend to have a Chromium browser open in the external monitor, plus a Byobu terminal and gEdit text editor on the smaller laptop screen. I'm also a heavy user of the Empathy chat application and Banshee media player. I'll also often have a Firefox window open as well, since it's the only Linux browser my employer's Microsoft mail system seems to work with. That tends to be a good spot to do music streaming from Rdio, my latest online addiction.

I write most of my code in Python. My job calls on me both to build websites and to wrangle data for offline analysis. In both cases, I find myself using the Web framework Django to manage and analyze the data, even if I don't plan on ever publishing a Web site. Though sometimes I'll drop down to raw SQL for a quick hit, or to skip past the chrome and focus on getting a really important query right.

PostgreSQL is my database of choice, mostly because of the awesome power of its PostGIS extensions, which are easy to use thanks to Django's excellent GeoDjango app. For something quick and dirty, I might substitute the lighter weight SQLite.

What would be your dream setup?

I'm happy with what I have for work. It's always nice to see the price to spin up servers in the cloud go down. It was a big hit to our team when Google App Engine raised their prices so much.

I'm starting to feel like my smartphone, a two-year old myTouch Slide that runs Android, might be a bit too much. It's great to be connected, and it could be a lifesaver in an emergency, but it feels a like an itch that my brain wants to scratch a little too often, pushing me to check my email or Twitter too frequently. I've yet to buy a tablet, though it seems inevitable. I wonder if it might be possible to revert to a dumb phone for calls and emergencies, but keep a 4G tablet in the backpack for Internet access. The dream, or perhaps delusion, is that I would still have access to all the great Web stuff I love, but I wouldn't pull it out as often if it was stowed away in a backpack. Am I nuts?