AMITIAE - Monday 15 June 2015

Cassandra: Change Computer, Altered Workflow, Reduced Output

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Having worked on MacBook Pro computers for several years, the sudden loss of my current machine because of a screen repair has meant a switch to a desktop computer. This in turn has resulted in a total change in workflow, affecting my output more than I had hoped.

Although I have written a couple of articles in the last week and prepared the text for my Bangkok Post column on Wednesday, I notice that I have become unproductive. I do not actually need to write anything (apart from the commitment to the Post) as the eXtensions website is not for profit. It would be nice if it were, of course - feel free to click on the ads - but my main priority begins and ends with my teaching commitments.

Over the last few days, however, I have stopped writing. The semester ended and my marks went in; I had a couple of visitors in the last week or so; but normally, I put out about 5 or 6 items a week (big and small). I wondered if it was just a simple case of writer's block. Or laziness. Perhaps both. Yesterday the penny dropped.

Most Sunday afternoons or evenings I watch motor racing: Formula One, or MotoGP. I have at my side an iPhone, an iPad (F1 Timing app) and usually, my MacBook Pro. That is missing this week. Although I have a Mac mini as temporary replacement, there are gaps in the workflow.

I knew that the MacBook Pro would be going in for a warranty repair and waited until a suitable break in the teaching schedule. This gave me time to set up the Mac mini: downloading applications I would need, transferring the data. The transition to desktop working has been relatively painless, but this is where the gaps begin.

The MacBook Pro (or any notebook computer) has shortcomings in terms of screen space, battery life (although this late 2013 model is far better than previous computers on this aspect) and other areas; but what it has above-all is mobility.

Mac mini setup

The Mac mini was intended to replace the old iMac in my office, but became a home backup solution by accident. A desktop machine is anchored. I initially placed it in the living room, but with guests and the occasional visit by a cleaning lady who has no respect for technology (I used to come home and find all power connectors bundled in a drawer), I decided to move it to the bedroom.

Although the room has a bed, there is also a sizeable fitted desk (it came with the condo). This is where I do my early morning writing - in a refreshing breeze - looking over part of western Bangkok. After breakfast, I catch up on email and the overnight news. I sometimes note down a few ideas, or even write a quick comment for uploading to the website.

A room with a view

If I stay home all day, by noon the sun has moved round and has begun to shine in the window. The buildup of heat, especially with curtains closed, is rapid. With the MacBook Pro, I move to the living room which is cooler and still has a nice enough view. As the afternoon draws on, or in the evenings when I come home from work, the MacBook Pro is on a small writing table within easy reach and I can work as and when I want.

That has been lost (for now). The morning sessions are still available to me, although even there, I have had to make concessions:

  • A different keyboard (Apple Wireless) has a slightly different angle and feel, so although I become more used to it as the days pass, it does not have the same tactile sense as the one with the MacBook Pro.

  • The trackpad is also different. I do not like a mouse as after years of notebook use I am much more comfortable with the trackpad. I bought the Apple Magic Trackpad for use (initially) with the iMac, but it is with me now. Again the angle and slight tactile difference impinge on the way I work

  • I am an orthopaedic surgeon's worst nightmare. This is not just the number of accidents I have had on motorcycles, but the sloppy way I use a chair: turning, sideways, sometimes standing as I work. Ergonomics are critical here and I was able to adapt the MacBook Pro positioning quickly. And as I did so, the keyboard and trackpad would move too. The screen could be quickly repositioned depending on how I sat (or stood).

That is all less easy with the desktop setup, despite the independence of the keyboard and trackpad. As I move my position, I need to move each of those separately. Even if those adjustments are only slight, they still need to be made.

Mac mini setup

The screen is less adaptable. I have borrowed an Acer monitor from my office and while the display is good enough, repositioning is awkward. Left and right changes can be done fairly easily; but this adds one more movement to the workflow -position, keyboard, mouse, screen.

Vertical adjustment is not so easy as the design makes this rather stiff and the range of adjustments does not suit me totally. The screen can be pointed downwards. This is way below any angle I would ever need, but would be useful if the monitor were positioned high up. Upwards positioning is limited. The maximum may be fine if I sit bolt upright, but if I stand, the display is out of range. I could do this easily with the MacBook Pro.

The screen size also brings a change. With the small footprint of the MacBook Pro, the desk, which doubles as a place to put all my pens, pills, deodorant sprays and the like was set up just as I wanted. With the larger screen area of the Acer monitor, these all had to be repositioned, with some hidden behind. I do still manage to have the morning coffee in the same place: left side; an arm's length from my working position in front of the screen.

I had been able to carry the MacBook Pro to my office, so that I could continue work on a project started at home, or start work on an idea while at work and carry on later in the evening. With no computer in my office right now, I can work on the iPhone which is limited for writing of course and used mainly just for odd notes.

I can also take the iPad with me, but I do not have Tim Cook's working ease with this device. He claims that he does most of his work on an iPad (he may also have a squadron of personal assistants). It is better than the iPhone for writing as far as I am concerned, but not as good as a computer. Some of the late editing for this item was done on the iPad while waiting for the sun to go down. With synchronization via iCloud, the file was ready for me on the Mac.

I rarely shut the MacBook Pro down, always using sleep. It was only restarted when software updates or new installations demanded I do so. I shut down and disconnect the Mac mini if I leave for an extended period. It is not that the device needs this, but that I do not have total confidence in wiring here. The necessary startup process when I return adds another layer to any return to production.

When I actually sit down and type, I am able to produce something that may work. The restrictions that the desktop computer has placed on me - albeit temporarily - have needed more adjustments to my workflow than I had anticipated.

According to the staff at the iCare office in Amarin Plaza, in central Bangkok, I may have the MacBook Pro back some time next week. There is an Apple event I will be attending (this week) in the Siam area and I expect to write something about that.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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