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Archive for the ‘workstations’ Category

Having worked freelance for most of my adult life, I’ve set up my desk in countless locales. It took me a while, though, to realize how to set up the desk in relation to the view. That’s not the kind of thing I was ever taught – I had to learn the hard way, through experience.

When I was a sessional instructor in the English Department of Simon Fraser University, my desk was mainly something to lean on while I talked with students about their essay preparation and results. I always counted myself lucky that I had entered grad school in English, because the Communications Department – my other choice was in the windowless maze of the Classroom Complex. By contrast, the English Department was on the north and west side of the sixth floor of the Academic Quadrangle. Each semester, I would have a variation on one of two views: The inner one, where I could see people passing through the quadrangle and, in summer, lounging on the grass, and the outer, which gave a spectacular view of the mountains to the north. I could, and did spend hours at my desk staring out at that semester’s view. But I never expected to get much work done anyway, because it would be sure of being interrupted just as I became absorbed.

When I became a technical writer, and later a marketing and communications consultant, the view became more important. At one long-term position, my window overlooked the top of the Hudson Bay parkade in downtown Vancouver. Looking down, I could see not only the people coming to and from their cars, but also the car thieves going systematically down the row of cars. I can’t have been the only one watching, because security guards would always come along a few moments before I thought to call them. But I was lucky that the project kept changing directions over the thirty months of its existence, or else I might have been too obsessed with the view below to keep up.

The same was true when I worked in Yaletown. The two storey building across the road had a flat roof that, over the decades, had accumulated enough top soil to support meter-high weeds. The weeds make the roof a perfect place for seagulls to nest out of sight of predators. Later, when the chicks came, they would scurry into the grasses to escape the detection of crows. Later still, they made their first stumbling efforts at flight across the roof, crash landing in the clumps of weeds. I was more fascinated by the progress of the fledglings than in the work I was doing, by far.

But my real downfall came when I worked on the twenty-third floor of Harbour Centre. I was the fourth person hired, so I more or less had my choice of locations for my desk. I placed it squarely facing the window, looking down at the harbor and beyond it to the mountains. The view was relaxing when I was negotiating ad space and bundling agreements on the phone, but a disaster when I was trying to write a manual or ad copy. I’d find myself staring out the window, and realize guiltily that I had left my thoughts to rove freely for the last ten minutes.

I wasn’t prepared to give up the view entirely, so I moved my desk at right angles to the window. That way, I could focus on my work without the distraction of a seaplane landing or a cruise ship docking, but, when I was on the phone or wanted to take a moment’s break, I only had to swivel in my chair.

I’ve followed the same arrangement ever since. Now, as I write in my townhouse, I am at right angle to a view of the trees beyond my third floor balcony. The view is not as breath-taking as some I’ve had away from home, but with the parliament of crows thirty meters away and its occasional visit by red-tailed hawks, there is still more than enough to distract me if I permitted it. But by not looking at it directly, I keep my productivity high, and can still enjoy the sight of the swaying tops of the evergreens when I stand, stiff and in need of a stretch after a long bout of work.

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It’s tough being pure GNU, especially when hardware is involved.

All my workstation computers are custom-built; I like to know exactly what goes into them, and would do the same for laptops, if I could. The last time I bought a workstation, I decided to break my old habit of buying an ATI video card, and buy an NVidia one instead (Never mind the model number, which usually matters less than the manufacturer would have you believe and is irrelevant here).

The switch seemed a good idea at the time. Not only was the ATI market share being reduced so quickly that the company seemed in danger of disappearing, but free and open source drivers for NVidia seemed closer to competion than for ATI. I felt confident in the decision, and settled down to learn the new arcanery of another manufacturer.

Then, last week I turned on the computer to find that yellow artifacts were cycling down the monitor like something out of The Matrix. I managed to boot once without them, only to have them reappear as I settled down to my morning email. Before long, the artifacts were so thick on the screen that I could no longer read anything beneath them, and I had to do an ungraceful shutdown, haunted by the vague guilt felt by those using a journaling filesystem, who know that, when they do finally manage to reboot, they will be confronted by the announcement, “The filesystem is NOT clean.”

Did I mention that it happened on the morning of the day that I do my usual backup, too? The perversity of the universe was apparently set on stun that day.

Some fiddling with my test computer soon showed that the problem was not the monitor, as I originally thought, but the video card.
Since I had bought the computer system thirteen months earlier, I was sure that the warranty would have just expired. To my surprise, it still had almost two years to run, so I took the system into the shop that assembled it for me.

According to the store’s staff, I was far from the only one whose card was suffering from the same problem. Trouble with NVidia cards of several models were becoming widespread, I was told. Fed up, I switched to an ATI card, also taking the opportunity to double the video memory to 512 megabytes.

I had been thinking of video cards as costing three or four times what they actually do; the old price had stuck in my head, just as I automaticallly assume that a paperback will cost five or six dollars – like most people, for me, the natural price for anything is the price they were when I was newly an adult. I also received a trade-in on my old card.

I switched back because, now, the situation is reversed. Since AMD bought ATI last year, ATI has been regaining market share. Moreover, while AMD’s behavior is far from perfect towards free software, it is still friendlier than any other manufacturer. Now, thanks to AMD, ATI free and open source drivers seem likely to mature first before NVidia ones.

So far, I’m satisfied with the swap. Not only does my workstation run faster, but I can use the highest resolution for the monitor, which I never could with the NVidia card. More importantly, although I can’t use an exact driver for the card, I can use a free one that has at least some degree of support for 3-D, without resorting to an archaic driver like VESA.

All the same, I can’t help thinking that I would probably have had a less troublesome week had I not tried to second guess how the market would react with free software and stuck with my original preference.

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