The Setup

Interview

What do people use to get stuff done?

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Theodore Gray

Theodore Gray

Co-founder (Wolfram Research), element collector

Posted

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Theodore Gray. I am a co-founder of Wolfram Research, makers of Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha. In that capacity I worked for nearly 25 years as the Director of User Interfaces designing and writing the Notebook interface for Mathematica. Around 2002 I got side tracked into a hobby collecting elements which resulted ultimately in writing a column for Popular Science magazine for ten years and in http://periodictable.com and my book and iPad app The Elements (which have sold about a million copies in print and app form). This lead to the formation of Touch Press with my partners Max Whitby, John Cromie, and Stephen Wolfram.

My main occupation right now is being the Creative Director of Touch Press, and writing a new interactive book/app about an undisclosed topic with a really interesting partner company.

What hardware do you use?

My main everyday machine is a tricked out 17" MacBook Pro. Mainly due to my getting to a certain age when focusing on micro-dots on a Retina display is problematic, I really, really want the 17" size, and I'm very annoyed with Apple for not making one anymore. The machine I'd been using for a couple of years started developing a fault with the power connector board and I was reduced to meeting a guy in the MacDonald's parking lot an hour away from here to furtively trade an envelope full of cash for the only high-end 17" MacBook available in this area (an early-2011 model with 2.3GHz Core i7, 512GB SSD, and 16GB of 1330MHz RAM: Sweet!).

As with all my laptops for a few years now, I ripped out the optical drive and replaced it with a second 1TB internal drive. It's painful going from 2TB down to 1.5TB total internal storage, but the 512GB SSD is really fast. As soon as they dip under about $500 I'm definitely upgrading both drives to 1TB SSDs. And I've ordered a replacement MagSafe power board so I can have a second backup laptop: Replacing it requires removing the motherboard, but I figure I'm going to have to get used to nursing these things along, because I don't see Apple making a new 17" anytime soon.

I also have a couple of hulking Mac Pro towers that I use for grinding out image processing tasks. They've got 16GB RAM and a bunch of big internal disks for handling a lot of file throughput.

And what software?

My principle piece of software for actually doing stuff is of course Mathematica, which is incredibly flexible and powerful. All of periodictable.com, for example, is generated by Mathematica code, including all the image reformatting and movie file generating. I have fairly elaborate Mathematica programs for processing the rotational images that are a signature of several Touch Press products, and for creating graphics for the new undisclosed project I'm working on now.

Much as I hate to say it, Microsoft Word is what I use most often for writing, which is about 50% of my life these days. Partly this is because it's what everyone else uses and I have to exchange files all the time with collaborators and editors. The change tracking features are indispensable. I hate it because it's buggy and stupid and over-complicated and irritating, but when you get down to it, it gets the job done.

Then of course there is XCode, though mainly for building now, it's a been a while since I wrote C code myself. We use Cornerstone/SVN for source control. Photoshop for all things to do with manual image manipulation. I generally don't use any of its batch processing features because I can do the same things much faster and with multiple cores using Mathematica.

And last but not least, there's Apple Mail, which is where I spend a very large part of my life, and Safari for the web.

What would be your dream setup?

In terms of what would be possible with present-day technology if only Apple would pay attention to the Mac line, I'd like a 17" Retina display MacBook Pro with 32GB RAM (yes, I would use it all), two 1TB SSDs (yes, I would fill them all), and an 8-core processor of whatever type is the fastest these days.