Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mac tools for profs

Macs seem to be insanely popular amongst CS faculty. Most conferences and faculty meetings I go to are dominated by Mac users. No big surprises, since (a) Macs work, and (b) they're sexy. I switched from Linux to Mac a couple of years ago after I got tired of editing three configuration files and rebooting to join a wireless LAN. That worked when I was a grad student, but now I'm too busy for that kind of crap.

I wanted to share some links to good Mac specific tools that I've found to be very useful in my job. If you have other suggestions, please share them as comments!

OmniGraffle is a great figure drawing program and produces very professional results. It's also easy as hell since it can do most of the layout for you, making sure that the boxes and arrows all line up correctly. The PDF output looks very slick and I've been using it for most of the figures in my papers; see Figure 1 in our SenSys'08 paper on Pixie for an example. Be sure to get the educational pricing.

Papers is one of my favorite Mac apps. It's like iPhoto for PDF files -- it will keep track of all of your papers, index them by title, author, keyword, etc. I use this program to keep track of my ever-growing reading list (rather than printing out a bunch of papers and letting them collect dust on my desk.) It also has a pretty slick interface for matching metadata about a paper (e.g., to pull in full citation information from the ACM Digital Library or Google Scholar) and for exporting to BibTeX and other formats. You can take notes and there's even an iPhone app (and soon, an iPad app) to let you read and take notes on papers on the go. (Yes, reading a two-column paper on the iPhone screen works -- if you zoom in on a single column and go widescreen, the text is the same size as on a printed page.) The only downside is that you have to manually synchronize the Papers library across multiple machines, easily accomplished with Unison, but I wish that were simpler.

BibDesk is a BibTeX library organizer. To import a new BibTeX entry, just copy it to your clipboard and paste it in BibTeX -- everything appears in the correct fields. You can also drag and drop BibTeX entries between files. This is infinitely easier than editing BibTeX files by hand and keeps the formatting right.

OmmWriter is a fantastic little app that is a essentially a Zen text editor -- it clears your entire screen and shows you only the text that you are writing. This is a great way of minimizing distractions and focusing while you write. WriteRoom is similar but I find OmmWriter's interface more appealing.

Finally, Caffeine is a little app I could not do without -- it puts an icon in your menu bar that, when clicked, disables your screensaver. This is very important when giving talks and avoids the embarrassing moment when your screen saver kicks in mid-presentation.


  1. Two notes about Papers:

    Papers has student pricing too.

    Also, you didn't mention one of the best parts about Papers, which is that if your university/corporate library provides a proxy link, Papers will proxy your connections to ACM, IEEE, &c. so that you can download papers from off-campus. [University of Washington -- see here:]

  2. Hey Matt.
    Nice post!
    Quick note, Papers has moved. It's now here:

  3. My own additions:

    a) latexit: great tool for creating quick equation graphics to drop into slides or diagrams (works well with Omnigraffle).

    b) Aquamacs-Skim combination for writing latex files.

  4. Though Papers is great, you should check out Mendeley too. It syncs with multiple machines too and is free.

  5. Apart from the many tiresome beachballs and a tendency to leak memory, I like the OS. A fine user experience for the most part, and it's hard to envision switching away.

    The hardware on the other hand has been pretty finicky. (I've seen more disk deaths in my iMac population the last couple of years than in fifteen years of PCs.) Not quite the premium german machines Apple like to pretend that they're selling.

  6. Another text editor with good full screen support is Bean:

    Nice plus: it's free, so go give it a try.

  7. A quick question: Have you found a way to get USENIX papers easily and accurately into Papers?

  8. By far the most useful useful app I use is Devonthink Pro, in the style described by Steven Berlin Johnson. I've become an evangelist for the program and now use it to organize my own research. It might be geared more towards liberal arts, at least as described, but I can still see it being very useful for, say, abstracts and conclusions.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.