Thursday, July 24, 2014

Joining the cult of the "picky about equipment" techies

In the past few days, we've been moving back into the lab/office space in our building following the remediation works of the past few months. As a result of this, I've been setting up a new workspace for myself from scratch - this time with the flexibility to actually configure a lot of the stuff to my liking (given that we had quite a lot of extra/idle furniture just lying around to choose from).




While I intend to write another post with photos showing my new setup soon, a few aspects of this setup are worth mentioning:
   1) During the moving process, the two monitors I had been using prior to the moves ended up going walkabout (it's not really any great loss though, since they were crappy viewsonic ones that I wasn't that pleased with TBH). The upside though is that I've now got hold of a fancy new one - a large (22-24'') Philips Brilliance, complete with swivel head with 3 degrees of freedom (i.e. similar to this one) with a tall stand. This thing is awesome!

   2) After several months in storage, I've dusted off the Logitec K120 I had been using. Despite being considered a generally "cheap" and "simple" keyboard, it currently holds the honour of being my 2nd favourite keyboard (NOTE: my favourite is of course still the one on my old Toshiba laptop, meaning that it is actually my favourite standalone keyboard). Hooking it up to my laptop this afternoon instead of using the laptop's builtin one (so that I could test out the feasibility of putting my monitors on top of a raised platform - this was before I managed to get the power-cable situation sorted out for being able to use the monitor) I quickly rediscovered why this was my favourite keyboard, and was reminded just how badly the modern chiclet-style keyboards on laptops (notably HP's ones) suck.

   3) For the non-technical stuff - I managed to find the tallest table in the room to use as my primary desk. After getting used to the height of the drafting desk that I use at home as my primary desk ("getting used" to it may be too much of an misnomer; I should really say "finally being able to sit comfortably" instead), I've come to the conclusion that all the standard "proper desks" the university uses are all a good 1-3 inches too low to be actually comfortable/healthy to use. They must've been designed by midgets who don't actually do anything serious, for midgets who do nothing even more remotely serious than the ones who designed the desks do.

I also managed to score a nicer chair than the standard adjustable wheelie chairs the department generally uses, when I by chance spotted a nice grey chair (with a much higher + solid back than the others around the place, which have those rather compact and hard pads mounted on a fixed/odd-heights) just sitting in the corridor outside an abandoned/unoccupied room nearby. After quickly testing it right then and there in the corridor to check whether it was comfortable (and more importantly, whether it had been abandoned to sit in the corridor for any undisclosed secret malfunctions), it was swiftly, shall we say, "relocated" ;)   (Hey, if there's a chair shortage, we've got plenty of other standard-issue wheelie chairs that people are welcome to take if they need! They seem to be breeding in the other half of the lab for some reason...)

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Perhaps the only "missing link" in this setup is the fact that I'm currently making do with one of the old Microsoft mice that used to be everywhere in the department (which have now been replaced by a fleet of rather small HP ones). While they are the only ones that are big enough to come close to matching the G400s I now use at home (which, as I've mentioned before I love using - it's actually quite shocking how "wrong" it feels using regular old consumer-grade, small + cheap mice now...), they still have a number of flaws: notably, the scrollwheel's softness makes it dangerous for use on Linux (or in Vim for that matter), secondly, the control gain being terrible on the desk surface I've got there (it feels like the permanently using the "fine" mode on the G400s), and finally, the grip/shape on that feeling like it "lacks" something.

I may end up needing to "rectify" this with a second G400s, specifically for on-the-move and office usage. Conversely, my experiences with hooking up the Philips monitor and the K120 to my laptop when working at a desk were quite enlightening as well, as it's got me contemplating getting a set of those for my home desk too. Even if I don't quite have space for a monitor like that currently (though it would almost certainly be better when dealing with the colour/graphics related work I frequently do), at the very least, it's probably time to get a K120 for home use (if for no other purpose than to enjoy the tactile feedback of a proper keyboard again).

Of course, if I'm going for having a separate monitor + and standalone keyboard again, it's not long before I just move straight back to dealing with a proper full-blown desktop tower. If nothing else, I can definitely get away with having a higher-spec'd processor that I shouldn't have problems chucking multi-hour renders at without worrying about the machine getting to warm to the touch or making annoying levels of sound at close range (sure, I'd still expect some noise, but only to the extent of large empty boxes with beefier fans on them can take a lot more beating than a slab of tightly packed electronics can).

The problem though would be that then I'd lose the benefits of session continuity between the machines should I need to hop from desk to couch, or home desk to on-the-go meetings. Been there, done that with the Toshiba - it's one of the two reasons why I ended up with the HP Envy (and it serves that purpose quite nicely) - in concert with a Linux based desktop in the office.

For instance, there was one incident around this time last year which cemented the extent of these problems: One day I forgot to push some changes I'd made on my laptop to the server so that I could access those changes in the office (the inverse problem is not an issue though, as I've got SSH access to Linux). Luckily Dad was home that afternoon, so I managed to coach him, over the phone, to bring up a terminal, navigate to the Git repo in question, and perform a "git push" on that. Sure, he probably had no idea what half of all that was, and it would've seemed like quite a strange workflow for anyone used to the sugar coated GUI world, but it was the most sure-fire + direct way I knew would work. After all, it was my machine, and I'd optimised it so that I knew how to easily use it in that very way from commandline if necessary (i.e. when some Windows-port-of-Linux-software cannot be launched in the right directory for whatever reason), so this was really just a walk in the park, so to speak. Technically, if you think about it, it was really just an example of remotely SSH'ing (slightly questionable, given what we know about the world's spooks now) into a machine, then using a "natural language language" (aka voice commands) interface to run some commands on the machine, while doing so blindfolded ;)

Heck, it turned out that the hardest part of the whole process identifying the right button in the GUI to launch a terminal in the first place (in retrospect, I probably should have just said, "hold down the Windows key and R at the same time, type c m d in the box that appears, and press enter"), with a lot of guessing about what exactly was the "orange" button I was trying to point out  (EDIT: actually on second thought, it might not have been launching the terminal that was the problem, but it might've been putting the computer back into standby, without risking someone unfamiliar with the slightly delicate nature of that machine's LCD panel being told to "just close it" - TBH, I still don't feel totally comfortable pressing the power button or closing the lid on a computer to change its "awake/standby states"... a relic of the days when doing so came with the risk of forcibly shutting it down without any clean shutdown just from applying a bit too much force to the button).

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Regardless of whether I ultimately end up setting up a "proper" desktop box again for use at home, my growing like of specific standalone pieces of equipment brings up 2 interesting points:
  1) I've finally begun to actually realise, understand, and appreciate the original grand design for desktop PC's - Everything is in separate, generic/replaceable pieces specifically so that you can keep using the bits you like and love, while upgrading the bits that are getting long in the tooth.

   It specifically applies to mouse, keyboard, and monitors (Note: on a side note, I first started to notice this when I started realising how the traditional desktop power supply cables are actually interchangeable between devices; a fact that was lost on me until I came across an IT department's stash, and being given 2 cables from the same pile to stub into whatever devices needed power).

  It's taken a while to accept, but the same applies to desktop towers too - the way they are built the way they are is specifically so that it's convenient to open them up, and just slot things in and out. The only thing really standing in the way is a combination/culture of fear about opening up these boxes due to the risk of electric shocks/static frying something (i.e. either the fleshy ball of blood, fat, and undelivered farts poking around, or the machine containing several years' worth of photos, documents, carefully tuned configurations, etc. may randomly get zapped), with an elaborate set of almost ceremonial precautions needing to be applied to prevent trouble.


  2) I've now officially joined the club/cult of tech-people who swear by using certain favourite pieces of hardware. You know, the ones who're said to lug around personal keyboards, mice, and other gizmos wherever they go ;)  We fall into 2 categories broadly speaking: those who love certain equipment due to the way it feels to use/work with it, and those who do so because it's the way they've found to stave off injury/pain/health woes.

I'd do it too with software (and do for the few rare cases when that can happen), but bad changes come too quickly these days if it's propriety (with little recourse for keeping the old but good stuff), while the open source alternatives aren't generally feasible as they're often lacking in some way (fixable with some effort if it really comes down to it) + problematically hard to compile (this is more of a dealbreaker; fixing buildsystems and tracking down obsolete dependencies is a dog). In theory, OSS  is perfect when the application is already in the state I love to use, as then it simply becomes a problem of figuring out how to compile/patch these old and good versions to keep running - but most projects have ended up being more of the former  :)

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On a related note, these days I'm beginning to increasingly love "professional grade" equipment. The stuff that will actually "just work", are able to take a beating over long sustained periods of time, and in many cases (though not all), "have lots of buttons" because it makes sense to. IMO several dozen dedicated physical buttons placed in strategic locations and able to be flexibly mapped beats out being able to create infinitely many virtual ones that can only be activated using a flimsy needle on the end of a long stick any day. Bill Buxton's comic of "What aliens would think humans are like if they saw only our software" comes to mind as a good starting point for anyone who needs convincing why.

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