The nerd survival guide mantra: Good tools are important. This much is true for any line of work. What’s nice about computer science though is that just about everything is accessible through just the bare basics of a decent laptop and cloud setup.
Despite not needing as many “fancy” specialized tools as other trades, I’ve previously been frustrated with the quality and durability of consumer electronics for long term use.
I’ve gone through laptops that have had “the
front back fall off“, countless earbuds that have frayed and become useless after only a month, Solid State Drives that have locked up, backpacks that have fallen apart at the seams, etc.
I’m generally the type of person who likes to try and pay a bit more up front if necessary and expect to get at least a few years of use out of a purchase. Also, there’s an inherent pleasure in using reliable, quality tools day-to-day that can’t quite be reached when using their cheaper counterparts. For these reasons and more, I present my favorite set of tools (ranked in order of importance) in:
Matt’s declassified nerd survival guide:
1: Pocket book
It took me 16 years and half of high school to learn that notes that I take on my phone or my computer don’t “stick” in my head. It took me another half a year to realize that a good pocket book is worth its weight in gold.
I found some small, hardcover notebooks at Walmart for $1 each instead of the normal $10-$11, and bought probably more than 20 of them a few years back.
I found the books were too bulky by default, so I usually rip out half the pages to make them slimmer and then keep it in my pocket right next to my wallet. It’s also nice when I’m talking to somebody about “that really cool thing that I’ll totally check out later“, I can actually whip this out quickly after talking and write it down so I don’t forget.
2. A good pen (Pilot G2)
Pilot G2’s are the gold standard for good quality pens. I made the switch from pencils a while ago just for smoother note taking and better legibility.
It’s rare that I’ll be coding or working on something without a notebook and pen in front of me for scribbling, drawing pictures, taking notes, etc.
Also, I’ve found for data structures and algorithms classes, the best way to hash things out is good ‘ol pen and paper. A good visual oriented tool is a great way to solve a visual oriented problem.
I got frustrated with how quickly my normal cheap consumer (*cough*) earbuds broke, and so I decided to buy some SHURE SE 215’s because I read the warranty and customer service was so good that they would replace the earbuds, perpetually, within two years of purchase or replacement. I’ve never needed to do this though as these earbuds have lasted me the last 6 or so years of heavy daily use, and I’ve only recently replaced the cable. You can find them when on sale for around $90.
They come with foam eartips, which are about the best thing out there for blocking out noise from the outside world (other than custom fitted IEM’s). Ideally, knowledge workers should have quiet working conditions , but when in college, traveling, etc. you can’t always get be so lucky, so it’s nice to be able to “plug in and tune out”.
For comfort, I’ve bought tripple flanged silicon eartips that block out noise pretty well and replace them every few months.
(I’ve actually switched to an even better Japanese-made Zojirushi vacuum flask recently)
Some things are important in life. A good mattress, a reliable car, good shoes, etc.
<BEVERAGE> is important.
When you hear the word “Thermos”, you probably think of something vaguely tubular shaped in your cupboard that you pour <beverage> into that keeps it hot for around 30 minutes, lukewarm for the next hour, and something that looks neat on your desk or in your backpack for the rest of the day.
I’ve tried quite a few things over the years, and nothing beats a real Thermos-branded vacuum flask for keeping coffee or tea hot throughout the day. I generally warm my Thermos with boiling water in the morning, dump it out, add coffee or tea, and have hot beverage for the rest of the day until after 4:00pm or so. The vacuum seal and narrow top seem to trap in heat much better than poor quality knock-offs or wide-topped Yeti tumblers.
I had two old Thermoses that I’ve switched out of use. One had a click top that made an audible “ca-CHUNK” noise every time I open or closed it that I’m sure was a thrill to my classmates. My other one was great, but had two gaskets that were a bit of a pain to clean. I sometimes marked the passage of time by my coding projects and how many times I cleaned my Thermos, but that’s another story.
5. Thinkpad T-Series Laptop
Due to Moore’s law slowing down, laptops haven’t gotten much faster in the past 5 years or so. Nowadays, it makes more sense to think of a laptop as something like a car (buy it, maintain it, and keep it around until it dies) instead of a fast-fashion statement (you absolutely have to get this year’s model!).
Some businesses haven’t quite figured this out yet, and are in the habit of replacing all their computers every 2-4 years. If you’re savy, there are some great deals to be had on used T-series Thinkpads: business-oriented laptops with great screens, keyboards, water-resistant and rugged ABS plastic “roll-cage” shells, and community-made Linux support (+).
Also, Notebookcheck.net is the place to go to read specs and reviews before buying a laptop. The site is operated out of Germany with the default language in German, and all the reviews are extremely thorough and in depth as per the national stereotype.
EDIT: my new laptop, very happy with it (cost me an ARM and a leg!):
6. A Samsung SSD
An M2 SSD is 5 times faster than a Sata III SSD, and a Sata III SSD is 5 times faster than a normal laptop “spinning disk” hard drive. In addition, regular “spinning disk” hard drives can often fail, leaving you with data loss and a paperweight laptop.
Most of the time when you click and see something as “slow” on your computer, It’s because it’s taking an incredible amount of time to lug data from the spinning “hard disk” into fast read-write memory or “RAM” that the CPU uses for actually doing things or showing you data. A SSD can greatly speed up your computer by reducing the time it takes your computer to load up and perform tasks.
Otherwise, the keys to a fast computer are,
- Install more RAM in your computer so your computer can keep more data around with caching instead of having to lug it in from the disk
- A powerful CPU for single-threaded apps
If you’re doing any kind of coding, compiling, or other work and your computer interactions are slowing below the Doherty threshold, you’ll have much less fun and productivity than you could be having with a good SSD.
Also, I’ve had a somewhat poor experience with my current Crucial SSD in my laptop, and I’ve heard industry horror stories of firmware issues, wear out problems, etc. in older models or “off-brand” SSD’s, so its worth either paying a bit more for the more recognized brands or doing a bit more research before purchasing.
7. Large notebook or notepaper
This is probably one of the most important “tools” in a knowledge worker’s arsenal. A good mid-sized notebook is big enough to write, draw, or doodle in, yet small enough that you can carry it under the arm to classes in school, or to and from your desk and meetings at a workplace. Again, Walmart is the best move here for price. For technical details you “only need to be told once”, thanks to the handy features of a notebook’s ease of use and %100 uptime.
For organization, I like to add three stripes of tape to the front and one to the side, and write my name and phone number where I can be easily reached if I lose it.
8. Good Tea (or coffee)
[but really, you do need tea]
Small, quick snacks are great for just about everything. Just try and avoid sugar.
10. A nice hat
I generally like to “keep my head down” (uh, when I’m smart at least) and block out lights and distractions, and nothing beats a simple hat for this.
11. Boox Note e-reader
Reading is something that I personally enjoy, but It can be hard sometimes in college to stay on top of all of the required coursework. I’ve enjoyed switching to using a Boox Note as my main reading and note-taking device (when not using pen and paper).
E-ink E-readers have somewhat fallen out of fashion, which is unfortunate because they’re much easier on the eyes than normal screens. In addition, battery is only used when the display “changes”, so It’s possible to go a week or more on a single charge.
Also, the Boox can read many of the open standard document formats that the Sony and Amazon models can’t, including textbooks, journals, comics, etc. It runs a modified version of Android and has decent app compatibility and a built in web browser, but I’ve found it most useful for reading books and documents that I transfer over as files via Bluetooth from my phone.
It comes with a smart pen that can be used for drawing or taking notes. The prouct’s marketing says it feels like a pen, but I find it’s somewhere between an etch-a-sketch, a white board, and a some kind of weird fine-point sharpie. It’s overall pretty good though.
In addition, you can take notes side by side on a textbook while reading it, and the notes stay with the book even after closing and re-opening it. This is pretty nice when delving into more technical topics.
Side note: If you’re on Windows or android, there are document viewers you can use which make use of the MuPDF engine which are much, much faster and nicer than the default (or *shudders* Adobe) readers. SumatraPDF on Windows is great, as is Ebookdroid on Android
Side note++: I’ve gotten quite a bit of use out of Reddit (?) and associated subreddit forums for information, news, and discussions on various technical things and such over the course of time. Slide for Reddit is a really great Reddit app for the site if you have an Android phone.
A good mechanical keyboard and desktop setup is great for longer periods of hacking. A good mechanical keyboard will last a long time, is satisfying and easy on the hands and fingers to type on, and makes a cheery “click-clack” noise (the joy of which can’t be understated) while typing. Cherry MX blues are probably the best key switches for normal typing, but by now I’m used to the lower activation pressure and tactile ‘bump’ of the Cherry MX brown switches.
13. Android smartphone
The best things in life are free, and that includes your smartphone (free as in speech, that is). I’m a big fan of the Android ecosystem for the ease of development and publishing, the freedom to install open-source applications, and the availability of networking, debugging, and remote login tools.
I’ve still got a OnePlus 5T that I’ve had for a few years, and it’s had decent software update support from the manufacturer. It’s easy to take apart too, so
I’ll probably replace the battery in it in another year or so I’ve replaced the battery on my phone and laptop (which is nice to still be graciously allowed to do by the manufacturer and thus save some money).
EDIT: I’ve decided to stick with my Oneplus 5t for a while:
14. Adjustable light temperate lamp
Blue light can prevent you from falling asleep at night (+). A good lamp will either be a warmer color (such as an incandescent), or adjustable brightness and color temperature for nighttime work and reading.
15. Nerd memorabilia
Fun desk ornaments are nice. I’m particularly fond of this plush Tachikoma AI-enabled spider “think tank”.
I also enjoy the show and fictional world they exist in, where there are giant war machines somehow imbued with child-like cuteness and charm, yet capable of self-awareness and deeply philosophizing on the nature of their own existence because, well, Japan.
Even though computing exists “in the ether”, those of us burdened to live in the physical realm can do well to buy and use good and reliable tools for work.
Some of these items are luxury purchases, but overall the full set is probably a decent money saver in the long run.
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