My Space

This week I thought I’d show off my room and workspace a little bit, as well as showing some of the unusual devices and pieces of technology I own.

I did a few calculations the other day; I have about 144 square feet of space (the room has pieces cut out of it in two out of four corners, so it’s not easy to calculate), along with about 90 cubic feet of storage space (that counts drawers, shelves, and the closet). Surprisingly, even though it’s not very much space for a house in suburban Indiana, I’ve never really felt crowded in it.

As you might have read in last week’s post, over my internet break I cleaned things up, so it’s looking nice and neat now.

So how about the pictures? You can click on any picture to enlarge it. Apologies for any less-than-stellar photography—my room has horrible lighting.

Here’s a view of most of my workspace.Obviously the computer is on a sort of standing desk; it’s about an inch higher than I’d like for perfect keyboard position (I’m a bit obsessed with ergonomics), but it works absurdly well for being exactly the height that my bookshelf was. I’ve been using this desk for about half a year, and in general I find it works great, especially in the afternoons after school—after sitting for almost an entire day with only short breaks, it’s really nice to be on my feet for a while. If I get tired of standing, I switch to using my laptop on the desk or, better yet, go do something else.

Here’s a closer shot of the desk with some code up on the left monitor and a running instance of the program on the right (this is a text adventure game I wrote up as a programming exercise a while back). I love having two monitors; it divides the desktop very nicely as well as giving you more screen space for cheaper than a big monitor.

No doubt you’ve been wondering “What the heck is with that weird keyboard?” Here’s a closer look:It’s called a Kinesis Advantage Contoured keyboard. While it looks really weird, it feels really good once you get used to using it (about a week or so). Along with the Dvorak keyboard layout (which is on the keys in the smaller letters), you have to move your fingers such a ridiculously low distance compared to a standard keyboard that you wonder how you were ever happy with a normal keyboard before.

This is one of the thumb pads:Ever noticed that your thumbs (your strongest fingers) never do anything except hit the spacebar? Now, this isn’t a complete catastrophe, since spaces aren’t exactly uncommon characters to type, but it’s still a comparative waste of your fingers. And most people let one of their thumbs idle completely, striking the spacebar exclusively with the other thumb. On the Kinesis, your opposite thumb hits the backspace key, which makes a lot of sense once you think about it. (For my first two weeks, I was constantly hitting space instead of backspace when I used any other keyboard, but I soon got used to it.) And instead of making awkward stretches from your pinky out to hit shortcuts with Ctrl and Alt, you press them with your thumbs instead.

This is a Logitech Marble Mouse:Some people are crazy about trackballs, but I’m not one of them. However, I obviously still like them, since I have one on my desk! I find it somewhat more comfortable not to have to move my hand as much, and it’s nice that the trackball stays in one place and takes up significantly less room on the desk. It’s also nice that you can give the ball a neat flick to cross all the way across the 2.5 feet of monitor width I have, rather than having to pull the mouse all the way across. However, while I find the trackball excellent for occasional mouse usage, I find myself significantly slowed on things that require constant mouse usage, such as photo editing, some games, and so on. For these tasks, I use a mouse.

My interesting input devices aren’t the only thing I use; I have alternatives for most of them near my desk, and when one is better than another I swap them out. Here’s one configuration, something I might use for playing games. It uses a flat QWERTY keyboard with a numpad (important for some programs), a Logitech MX Revolution mouse (a $100 mouse, but a very nice one, though if I understand right they’ve moved on to a similar but different model), and a pair of headphones plugged into my speakers’ volume control.

I have one more keyboard, the TypeMatrix 2030, although this one typically lives in my laptop bag or attached to my laptop on the desk rather than with the desktop. It’s a really nice keyboard for only $100, and it’s very portable and seems fairly resilient:

This is the laptop I’ve been talking about. It’s going to be my main machine in college starting next year (that’s why I got it). The screenshot is on the setup utility simply because I was too lazy to boot the system all the way up, not because of any issues with the system or because that’s all it can do. :-)(That piece of paper to the side is the checklist I keep in my laptop bag to avoid forgetting things in my room when I go out.)

The following is, indeed, a hard drive platter being used as a coaster. It doesn’t stay nearly as clean and smooth as the platters are in a newly sacrificed drive, but it still looks cool on a geeky computer desk. It’s not labeled because I wouldn’t know it’s a coaster otherwise—I label everything that has a permanent place because it helps remind me to keep it there and not put other things there that don’t belong.

This is a lantern for mood lighting:

It spins because of a convection current created by the light, but because of its placement on top of the top ventilator of the computer, it spins even when the power to both it and the system are off (I think it’s because the power supply unit right below it generates a small amount of heat in standby).

I salvaged this piece of ancient power equipment from my church office when I upgraded their systems.I don’t have a printer or computer connected to the labeled buttons; instead I use it to control my lighting and the chargers connected to the back. It’s a really handy way to switch some devices on and off quickly, and the inside of the case holds any extra cord you don’t want.

I bought this stopwatch for timing my work on the Anki support forums: Unlike every other cheap stopwatch I’ve owned, it’s actually enjoyable to use and doesn’t feel like it’s either about to fall apart or wasn’t really meant to be used as a stopwatch in the first place (ones added to cheap watches, for instance).

Here are my pedals for the StealthSwitch 3, a device that assigns keyboard events to foot pedals. I have had five pedals for over a year and am still in the process of trying to figure out what they should be assigned to. One of these currently does media play/pause, which is very nice:Another one, located on the opposite side of the desk, puts the computer into standby so I can just touch the switch as I’m leaving the room (my computer draws a good 150W of power idling, so it’s important to turn it off when it’s not being used). The other simply locks the screen if it needs to remain running for some reason. The red spike tape is so that I know roughly where they should go if they drift; I’ve marked out quite a few places in spike tape so I know where the chair mat goes, what floor space needs to be clear for the drawers to be openable, and so on.


I’m going to switch gears to some less electronic-related stuff. As much as I love gadgets and technology, I love paper too. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I own an electric typewriter. The book on the left is a textbook that I picked up at a rummage sale for 10 cents.The other reason is that I got it at Goodwill for six dollars when I was seven years old and have never seen fit to get rid of it. I don’t use it every day or even necessarily every week, but it’s there and I do use it; it’s nice to be able to type on a form or worksheet, or just sit down and write something without using the computer.

Here’s a device you’ve probably never seen the likes of before:It’s an AlphaSmart 3000, but if you looked at the picture you saw that. It’s sort of a cross between those typewriters with screens and a laptop; officially it’s called a portable word processor. You type on it, then wire it to a computer via USB and it acts as a keyboard and inputs your file. I don’t use it too often, but it comes in handy if I want to work on something away from a computer (to avoid distractions or because I’m in the waiting room at the dentist) and not have to type it in again later. It’s rated for 700 hours of operation on 2 AA batteries, it can hold some 80 pages of text, and you could throw it across the room and expect to damage the wall first. Since it’s old, they run for about $25 on eBay.

Oh, and you noticed the keyboard is laid out in Dvorak, right? Yes, it supports Dvorak natively.

This is my handheld scanner. It can scan a page in about four seconds, and you can scan hundreds of pages onto a MicroSD card before needing to transfer them to a computer. It makes it practical to scan your mounds of paper, which means I’ve gotten rid of piles of old notes and imported them into giant PDFs stored in Evernote instead.(That’s a note-taking sheet for NetHack, a game I play. It’s in the picture because it was on top of my inbox when I went to take a picture.)

Speaking of my inbox and my other specific in/out boxes…yeah, they need some work:Let’s not talk about those for now, huh?

Moving even more to paper, this is a note-taking system I use, based on techniques promoted by Lion Kimbro (website is rather old and does not contain a reference to my reference) in Mindhacker. In the notebook are some ideas about backups and the intrinsic differences between different types of data and their value, and the sheet of paper is a map organizing the contents of the whole notebook. (To zoom in closer and read, right-click and choose Copy Image Link, then open a new tab and paste the link.)Here’s part of the index (same drill on zooming):

Some more writing and paper stuff. I’ve had the fountain pen for about a year now (it’s a Pelikan Tradition M200 for anyone interested), and the drafting pencil on the case for somewhat less. The nibs in the clear case (it’s a repurposed iPod Touch package) are antique steel nibs.

I keep all my computer gear in these file cabinets, then use the tops as extra storage space for items that don’t belong in my room and need to go somewhere. The flash drive hanging on the wall is needed to boot up my laptop, so I keep it somewhere prominent where I won’t lose it.

I carry the items in the box with me when I go out (this all fits in my pockets comfortably, but I couldn’t add anything else): Roughly from bottom-right to top-left: green pocket notebook (more later), iPod Touch, four-color ballpoint pen+pencil (the most useful pen I can carry with me if I only carry one), Livescribe pen (only when I go to school—used for notes, but I keep it in my pocket when I go because it’s expensive and I don’t want it to get scraped up or covered with lead shavings in my pencil case), really cheap dumbphone (I don’t really care for texting and make all my calls from my house landline, so I don’t have much reason to own a more modern phone, but I do need to call people while I’m out occasionally), wallet, and keys + flash drive + flashlight.

Here’s an example of some pages from my pocket notebook. I write down ideas, quotes I hear or say/think myself, things I need to do, and stuff I need to send to or tell other people. I cross them out once I act on them or move them into a more permanent place like my clippings file or to-do list, but leave them for future reference. If it looks like I spat random letters onto the page in some places, that’s a form of shorthand known as Dutton Speedwords (Google it).I really would be in trouble without my pocket notebook now that I’ve gotten used to having it (I’ve been carrying one regularly since this September). I could use my iPod, but it takes forever to pull it out, open the notes app, and then type on a touch-screen keyboard—by the time I was ready to type, I could have written something down in a notebook. Also, you can sketch if you need to—I don’t need to very often, but I have. I’ve even squished in three more lines between each line and made makeshift staff paper to write down a melody I wanted to remember. It’s also rarely socially unacceptable to write something on a piece of paper, whereas there are times when you simply can’t use an electronic device.

In the past, I’ve had trouble really warming up to pocket notebooks because they were simply too big: in the side pocket of dress pants or khakis they were fine, but in the side pocket of jeans they really constricted my movement and were uncomfortable, and in the back pocket they were too rigid and were uncomfortable when I sat down. When I tried the soft-cover kind, they got smushed and ripped up in a few weeks. But this one is barely the size of my palm, and it even fits in a shirt pocket:(Speaking of shirt pockets, the world needs more shirt pockets. I much prefer having my notebook in a shirt pocket because otherwise it has to share a pocket with my iPod, making both significantly more difficult to get out. But only one or two of the shirts I wear regularly have one, even the button-up ones and polos. I suppose it’s cheaper not to put them on.)

I’ve always been a fan of weather, so this barometer is an obvious functional decoration:(Sharp-eyed readers may notice a misprint on the dial.)

And then you have my bed, which is in complete contrast to the rest of my neat spaces:It doesn’t really bother me much, but maybe I should start making my bed sometime.

Noticed that bright blue backlit alarm clock?It’s a Neverlate Executive alarm clock, which can proudly state that it is quite possibly the only alarm clock to require a “Quick Start Guide.” It has 21 alarms, a radio, a nap timer, a radio sleep timer, one-time alarms, a skip alarm button, and a “settings” menu that lets you control all of those and more. Despite all the features, it’s still easy to use until you want to change the settings.

I bought this boom box sometime around 2004. It still works, so I keep it for when I want to listen to CDs. It takes up some floor space and gets in the way sometimes, but I do like having a way to play music without using my computer.That timer in the back kicks in for four hours a day to provide juice to my charging station, then cuts out to eliminate standby power draw. It’s not much energy, but since I already had the timer and it was just lying around, I figured I might as well set it up.

 

Here’s the back of my computer desk:The cables aren’t too pretty, but there’s not much you can do about that when you want to put the computer smack in the middle of the room (and there’s really no other way to lay out the bookshelves—the two tables which run the length of the room for sitting desk space have less than a foot of space at the ends, and the bed only fits on the side of the room where it is). I hardly see them anymore, even though I’m normally very picky about that kind of thing. Of course, writing about them has made me start noticing them and being annoyed by their ugliness. Let’s move on, shall we? ;)

My display shelf. The chess board isn’t just for decoration; I’m playing chess over Facebook with a friend. I put the board up on the display shelf because in the first game we played, I accidentally brushed the board (which was on the file cabinet) while coming into the room in the dark, sliding a knight over by one space without noticing, eventually causing me to lose the game because I thought moves were safe which weren’t.

I keep all my computer parts, lesser-used peripherals, and cables in these cabinets.I really regret not having taken a “before” picture of my cable drawer before I organized it. The cables were in one huge knot which didn’t fit inside the drawer, so it was perpetually propped open with cables hanging out of it. If I needed a cable, I inwardly groaned and spent the next five minutes going either “I know I had that in here!” or “I see the end of the cable, but how do I get it out?” This is much better, huh?

I actually have free space in my closet now, as well as an office supply organizer:The plastic bin is the “doodad bin,” which consists of all the random stuff I have that doesn’t really belong anywhere. It’s not, however, a junk bin—I refuse to have a junk bin, as everything is supposed to either have a place or get out of my room (or be in a pile for organizing). I go through there regularly and throw things out.

You’ve been seeing a lot of labels, so here’s the thing that makes them:

 

It’s been a long tour—I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Feel free to ask about anything I didn’t explain adequately in the comments, and I’ll be back next week with some sort of a “tip,” as we’ve had a shortage of those compared to other types of content lately.

A Week Without the Internet

I’ve spent my last week mostly disconnected. It’s been a surprising week in a lot of ways, and a very good, relaxing, and productive one as well.

The Plan

  • For the first weekend, I did not touch any internet-enabled device.
  • Afterwards (weekdays), I used the Internet at school for an online class, to work during one meeting, and to research how to change the date format on an assignment I needed to print. I also glanced at my email twice to confirm nothing really urgent had come up (I read only two emails total further than the subject).
  • I also did not play any electronic games or use my iPod Touch for anything except looking up notes during that meeting and studying. I barely text at all, but if I did I would have refrained from that as well.

For most of the time I kept my Ethernet cable disconnected and in a drawer in another part of the house, which prevented me from connecting for something trivial. On my wireless devices, I used the “forget this network” option. (I still knew the password, but not having it immediately available was all the deterrent I needed.)

Effects
I spent most of the weekend and some of the following week picking up, deep-cleaning, and organizing my room. It’s better than it’s looked in years now (it remains to be seen whether I can keep it that way, but I’m going to try). I can’t say that I got a ton of other stuff done since I spent hours on that—I suppose I could try it again sometime and see how I fared.

I noticed that I got my homework (and other tasks I needed to do) done a lot more expediently. With fewer distractions and fewer of my customary things to do, I was much more likely to just sit down and do it.

Most noticeably, though, the way I reacted to my Internet connection being gone surprised me. If you use your computer a lot, you’re probably familiar with the feeling you get when you find your internet is down. (If you don’t use or like computers or the Internet too much, think of your electricity being out.) Do you sometimes go around expecting to do things, then realizing you can’t do them because the Internet / power is out? It’s easy to forget everything that the Internet does for us nowadays because we’re so used to it being there. I don’t feel that I’m completely dependent on or addicted to the Internet (and I should know, since I just spent a week without it!), but I’ve even been known to open a browser before I remembered that I didn’t have a connection.

Yet this week hasn’t been full of those “duh” moments. Indeed, I was surprised to find myself hardly missing my Internet connection at all. Sure, there were plenty of times when I realized I couldn’t do something (order an item from Amazon, look up the answer to a question, or research something I heard about and was interested in). When I had one of these moments, I added an item to my “List of Things to Do on the Internet,” to be handled when I got back. But I didn’t put things on the list after I tried to do them and couldn’t; I always knew I couldn’t do things before I tried them. I think it’s because my separation from the Internet was planned and intentional, rather than being a technical problem suddenly thrust upon me. Seeing the difference has been quite educational.

I also found that the need to be in touch with what’s going on is considerably less than I thought. (I’m speaking of the level of need perceived by people today and what society expects of us—the actual need is of course still lesser.) I looked at my email twice, as I mentioned earlier. I never found an email that actually required my attention until the last day (which I saw only after my break was done anyway). I left an autoresponse message giving people my phone number if they felt their message was time-sensitive; only two people took me up on it.

I’m happy to get back online (starting today). It’s nice to be able to look things up, read about what’s going on in the world, and communicate with others. But this week felt really good, too; it was a much-needed break from being in constant contact with our friends and the news of the world. Those abilities are certainly useful, but it’s also important to sometimes take a step back and remind ourselves that it isn’t the only thing that matters.

I’ll certainly look into doing this again, though I’m more inclined to go for a couple of days or a weekend rather than a full week. Nevertheless, the longer time span was definitely educational, and I’m glad I did it.

How to Set Up Your Own Break
I’d recommend that everyone give this a shot. A week is probably a little bit overkill at first, especially if your job depends on using the Internet (sure, you can make an exception for that, but if you’re connected during work every day, it’s not really the same). Many of these ideas are still useful for short periods of time, but they’re especially aimed at (and important for) longer breaks.

  • Decide on conditions. Having a plan for what you will and will not do makes it easier to keep going with it. List the dates you plan to be off and what exceptions you’ll make. Write it down and give it to someone else to create accountability.This may seem like a silly exercise—after all, the point of taking a break from using the Internet is not to test your willpower, it’s to give you a break. Unfortunately, we’re so used to having the Web right there that just saying “All right, now I won’t use the Internet” probably won’t work.
  • Visit networks and let people know what you’re doing. Post a status update, write an automatic vacation reply, whatever is normal for that network or method of communication to let people know you’ll be away for a bit. If you like, you can provide a phone number for urgent things. You don’t need to do this, but if you don’t, people will probably ask you what’s going on. Here’s my email autoresponse:
To the copyright holder/owner/writer of this email—
I am taking a break this week from my regular Internet connectivity. I will be back on February 9, 2013. If your email is time-sensitive and cannot wait until then, feel free to call me at [my phone number].
Thanks for your understanding.
Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://sorenbjornstad.com
  • Liberate digital data. If you have an electronic, online calendar, to-do list, or anything else that you expect to need during your break, get the relevant information on paper. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using these normally, but if you have to keep connecting to access them, it’s much easier to justify doing other things “while you’re there.”
  • Make an “internet list.” If you write down things you want to do online, you won’t have to feel bad about not doing them—you can simply do them later (and by that point, perhaps some of them will have become irrelevant or uninteresting and you won’t have to do them anymore—always a nice feeling).

And most important of all, enjoy your break: get something done that you’ve been putting off, or get some much-needed rest.