Digital Nomadship and My Personal Relationship with Tech

I am fascinated by digital nomads. The idea of carrying your belongings in a bag and traveling where your heart takes you is appealing to me. I used to be a roadie for rock bands. Family lore has Irish Tinker in my blood. I get wanderlust. I love to travel. I hate the hassle of traveling, but I love seeing new places. I am genetically dichotomous. The gypsy blood wants me to roam; the German pragmaticist wants me to grow roots and be a slave to a routine. The German part of me wins more often. In my mind, the trains always run on time. I don’t like it when the timeframe for a get together is vague.

Every kid has fantasized about joining a circus. We’ll be mad at our parents and want to pack our earthly belongings into a paper sack and take off. Sometimes as adults this feeling never leaves us. We look longingly at a picture of an exotic place and think, “Fuck it. I’m going to quit my job and go live in Caribbean.” This is common in New England in the dead of winter when yet another blizzard drops 2′ of snow on us. Or what’s normally a 30 min commute turns into a 2 hour crapfest because of an accident.

The Boston Globe had a great article about the gig economy. I think if I was in my 20s now, going 100% independent would be what I would strive for. Corporate loyalty only goes in one direction these days, and it’s not towards the worker.

The reality is, I’ll never truly become a digital nomad in my career. I have roots, and I like being surrounded my stuff. Even if I had job that supported a fully-mobile lifestyle, I like having a home in the woods with my people and animals.

In all other regards, I’m a digital nomad. I can’t remember when I used a desktop as my primary computer. The early 2000s, I think. Once I got a hand-me-down Mac laptop at an old job, PowerBooks, and now MacBooks became my daily drivers. My iPad Pro is increasingly becoming the only device I need on the road. Every iOS revision I get closer to only keeping a MacBook on for iCloud sync and using iOS as my Primary OS.

Early last year, I bought a MacBook Air, 11″. We had a sudden failure of a 2009 MacBook Pro 13″, so I handed down my 2011 MacBook Pro 15″ and bought the Air. The 15″ then died so we bought a Chromebook to replace it and I put the 15″ on the shelf. It turned out the 15″ was covered under the Apple extended warranty for GPU failures1 so I was able to get it running again for free.

That 15″ is a laptop I have immense love for. As much as an inanimate object can help, it got me through an incredibly tough period of my life. I was going through a divorce, a job loss, my mom’s successful battle with cancer, and wrapping up my college degree. I wasn’t home more than I was, especially during the divorce. The 15” and eventually the iPad 3 were with me for every step. I bought the version that had the discrete GPU so I could play World of Warcraft when I wasn’t at home. The large screen helped a lot doing my chemistry homework. My only regret 5 years later is I didn’t get the version that had the 1G card. In hindsight, I was foolish to think 256gb on a video card would be enough. I’ve since replaced the hard drive with a 400g SSD and upped the ram to 8gb. Even with the entirety of my OneDrive account still residing on the 15″, I still have a 145g free. I can upgrade to a 1TB drive for short money. A few years after I bought it, Apple started making the MacBook Pros harder to upgrade, so in a lot of ways it feels like the last of the V8s.

Likewise, I have no regrets with the 11″ Air. I could have bought a higher-end version with the 512gb drive, but even with my Lightroom Library on the drive I still have 50 gig free on it (the OneDrive library, obviously isn’t on it). The Great Cloud Storage Consolidation of 2016 let me offload large, infrequently-used files to a cloud storage and never need to store them on my Mac — these are files I primarily read on my iPad. Upgrading the SSD is more expensive than the Pro, but I can update it to 480G or 1TB.

All things being equal, if the 2009 Macbook Pro died a year later I would have bought the iPad Pro, handed down the 15″ and when it had the GPU failure still bought the Chromebook (it’s worked better for her than any other laptop I’ve given her). When it got fixed, it would become my desktop Mac. I have an Alienware Alpha to play games serves as the print and media server for the house, so if I needed desktops-type stuff, I was covered. The 15″ would have become my on-the-road Mac.

Events didn’t unfold that way and I have two laptops that are perfect for me, just in different ways. I’m not going to get rid of either of them. I also can’t use both of them at the same time2.

Day-to-day use, they perform about the same. Geekbench-wise, the Air is a tad faster on single-core, the Pro about 3k higher on multi-core. In my games, the HD5000 on the Air benchmarks close to the 6490M on the Pro, but the Pro doesn’t have the frame rate sags the Air does. That said, the Air takes advantage of Metal. WoW supports Metal so it runs on the Air a little bit better.

What does this have to do with portable computing?

On the recent Upgrade podcast, Myke Hurley and Jason Snell were discussing Jason’s article When traveling, the iPad is essential and my Mac is the add-on. I don’t think in either the article or the podcast discussion Jason defended his thesis well — while he was outlining areas he thought iOS could improve, it came across more of a indictment of working on iOS than supporting why it was essential. However, Myke asked Jason a good question: If you could only bring one device, which would it be? Jason hemmed and hawed and didn’t really answer it because Myke set him up — Jason’s use cases make it more likely than not he would have to bring a Mac with him when he travels; this may not be the case in a couple of years.

I know what the answer would be for me: the iPad Pro in almost every situation. Even if I was traveling through Europe for a year, the only reason I would bring a Mac is if I was doing photography that required the full version of Lightroom. I could live without WoW for a year. Lightroom Mobile even covers most of my basic post needs.

It’s when you ask me to pick one MacBook I have a dilemma.

The Mac leaves the house for very specific purposes. I could be presenting on a screen while I’m working on a document. The iOS version of Excel falls down on some of the data-driven spreadsheets I use.3 In a few weeks I might need to work on an complicated Excel file with a friend. I’ll bring the 15″ so we can work on it together and I don’t have to worry about any issues with iOS Excel. I could be going to a Tableau seminar and need a laptop for their hands-on labs.

The Air is more portable, has better battery life, faster read/write performance, USB 3.0, and weighs a metric shit ton less than the aircraft carrier-sized 15”. The Pro has a larger screen and hard drive, slightly faster multi-core benchmarks, worse battery life by about 2-hours, … and a whole lot of fun memories that come back when I use it. It’s like the ratty pair of slippers you don’t want to throw away because you remember wearing them all the Christmases with the now grown-up kids opening their presents. It even has the hole still in it the now long-dead dog chewed in it.

The Air is not without its memories. My cat, Harrison, died last year and until recently there was still one of his paw prints on the back of the display. I was bummed when I looked for it a few days ago and it had finally rubbed off.

I written a few paragraphs about how I didn’t have the attachment with some of my older Macs and iPads that I do with the iPad pro, the 15″ and the 11″. But that’s not true. The 2006 plastic MacBook I was able to purchase entirely with freelance money — the first time I was able to do it. The scores of articles I wrote for PC Gamer with it on the train in and out of Boston. The 2009 MacBook Pro that shipped with the Nvidia 9400M that actually wasn’t a bad little video card for the time. It also got 7 hours of battery life — a huge improvement over the whitebook. My first interaction with Trish — an email exchange via eHarmony happened on that keyboard. I’ve met a few still-close friends playing online games on that MacBook Pro. My original iPad — handed off without much of a thought to a friend — introduced me to the world of reading electronically and has allowed me to amass a massive library that doesn’t require its own building. iPads have been my constant companion since I got the first one in 2010. Six years seems like a lifetime ago.

These devices, these little soulless pieces of silicons are our windows and doorways into the world. Our fingers touch them very day. They are the devices we share the good news of a newborn child, that she said, “YES!”, and a new job. We type the bad news of a passed family member, an impending divorce, and a job loss. We can drive by a store and remember a happy dinner within the walls. I can remember the keyboards I first talked to a new love and passed on bad news about a marriage. Typing out on Facebook about a death. Musicians mention the instruments they create a memorable song with. Guitar players wax poetic about writing songs on a hunk of wood and wire4; writers remember the keyboards and devices we write on.

What’s nice about light, thin devices is creative people can work wherever the muse strikes us — or we chain her to a chair and make her get to work. Nomads travel to where the work is. Now, my creative endeavors can travel with me.

  1. The moral to this story, kids, is don’t get a Mac with a discrete GPU. Those things have a high failure rate.
  2. I can come close, though. With all of my files in iCloud drive it’s just a syncing issue. One app I use writes a lot of logs that I need to reference. I’ve found the iCloud syncing is a little slow in that regard, so I had to store them in the Documents folder.
  3. I should be working on my work laptop, but at this point I hate the T440 I have so much, I’d rather use our VDI on my Mac than use the T440. I’m in line for an upgrade to a T460 which I understand to have a better trackpad and also is a smaller device.
  4. I play the guitar. Don’t email me.

The Great Cloud Storage Consolidation of 2016

David Chartier posted this wonderful series of articles about combining his various cloud storage into iCloud Drive.1 My digital detritus is spread across three cloud services: iCloud Drive; Dropbox; and OneDrive. I need to consolidate this somewhat.

The bulk of my crap is in OneDrive. I have my main working folders with my documents and about 100g of scanned comics and guitar magazines. iCloud is the next second with its own version of working directories (my iWork files for example are all there). Dropbox is this kind of dumping ground with only about 4gig of stuff.

My Office365 subscription comes due soon and I gave serious thought to cancelling it. I don’t use office that much. In the end, the hassle of moving the scanned images to some other service outweighed any benefits of cancelling. If iCloud Drive did selective sync, I would have uploaded it, but this type of data doesn’t need to live on every — or any — of my devices.

Dropbox does a few sketchy things with its OS X client that I’m not thrilled with. I’m not sure if the battery problems I had in Sierra were related to Dropbox scanning the whole system (I doubt it), but it was an energy vampire I could live without. The same with OneDrive. I use OneNote as my primary note taking platform and the OS X version can read and write from OneDrive without needing to have the client installed. The same with the Office apps.

I moved all of the general stuff I need on a close to daily basis from OneDrive to iCloud Drive. Folders for my now-defunct freelance business, a general Creative Projects folder, and my Calibre Library are now moved from OneDrive to iCloud Drive. The only things left up on OneDrive are the large image libraries of the scans.2

There were a few reasons I undertook this effort. I didn’t like having stuff scattered through different services. I’d keep asking myself, where did I store this file? The main thought was to limit the services that run on my Mac. I don’t know how much these contributed to any battery issues. I also don’t run my MacBook on battery often. When I do, though, I want to make sure I’m eking out every second.3

iCloud Drive isn’t perfect. I don’t like that it doesn’t do selective sync, and it’s still something updating and running in the background. I have faith in Apple to be a little more circumspect and not scan the entire file system. Given that cloud services still aren’t one of Apple’s strong suits this may be misplaced trust. When I go to save a file in iOS, the “Save to iCloud” action expands every freaking folder making navigation incredibly unwieldy.

Finding where iCloud downloads my iBooks files was a lost cause. Originally Apple’s plan with iBooks in 10.11.4 was to allow you to delete the local iBooks downloads — like you can with iOS. Right now, though, you can’t. I know they are taking up considerable storage on my Mac, I just don’t know where. I would probably move some of them to OneDrive if I had a better idea where they were to get a file size count. After a few hours of Googling the best I can find is they are stored in an iCloudiBooks folder that’s impossible to find. The best I could find was the PDFs in the directory with a Finder search.

My original goal was to eliminate OneDrive completely. I was looking into something like BitTorrent Sync or Seafile, The problem I had is the reader apps I use on iOS don’t support these natively. Sure, I might be able to find in the file in the service’s iOS app and do an “open in,” but that’s too much hassle.

A few days into this, I’m happy with the decision. iCloud has come a long way in a few years. Only two years ago I wrote about how crappy my experiences with iCloud Drive were.

  1. David is also on MacPower Users Episode 345 talking about this.
  2. That’s not 100% true. I still have the old folders I moved, but this is more of an archival backup than a working copy.
  3. I’m not sure if turning wifi off when I really need good battery life will stop the scanning. I also could have written some sort of script to kill OneDrive and Dropbox when I need to.

Farewell, Sierra; Hello iOS-Primary on Mobile

I’ve used OS X as my primary personal OS since OS X 10.3 (Panther). I might have used 10.2 Jaguar but Panther is the first one I have still have a memory of. I also used Classic OS, but that was so long ago, it’s not really relevant.

In those 13 years I’ve never downgraded from a release version of OS X to the previous version.1That changed last week when I wiped my MacBook Air from Sierra and went back to El Capitan. It was the battery life that got me. My 2014 MacBook Air 11 saw a marked decrease in battery performance. Prior to Sierra I’d get 8-9 hours no problem. With Sierra, sitting idle not doing much the performance dropped to 4 hours. If I ran a 3D game, about 1 hour. A few Google searches showed that even a clean install of Sierra did not solve this problem. The replies are either “me too,” or the usual recommendation to let the post-upgrade Spotlight and Photos indexing occur. Because their battery life isn’t affected, you must be computing wrong. Here’s the thing though: waiting on indexing doesn’t seem to make a damn bit of difference.

So, even though I rarely use my MacBook off the adapter, I downgraded to El Capitan and got my old battery life back. On iOS, typically doing a Reset All Settings clears up the battery life issues. The only inconvenience is having to re-enter your WiFi passwords, but I keep those in a Notes file anyway. There’s nothing similar on macOS.

I mentioned back in February I was leaning towards going iOS-Primary for my mobile usage. Since February I’ve been pretty much iOS-Primary when not at the house. I’ve taken a few road trips and left the MacBook at home on all but one. Most of the time when I go to work I just toss my iPad Pro into my bag. Last weekend I was away but I brought my MacBook to play World of Warcraft on. The hour I spent playing it really didn’t justify hauling it around.

Right now, the use cases for bringing (or even using) a MacBook are:

  • I need to use custom filters in Lightroom2
  • I need to edit a Tableau Report3
  • I want to play World of Warcraft

Those are pretty narrow use cases. I can wait until I get home and use Lightroom on my Mac or PC. I don’t really edit Tableau reports away from my work PC much. World of Warcraft is just a leisure activity and not something I need to do away from my desk. I might play it downstairs while a game is on, but that’s still pretty rare.

With the iPad Pro I can draw, write, play a game that’s not WoW, read, and cover most of my productivity tasks. I also have a retina screen, amazing battery life, and a charger that can charge it to 80% in 1.5 hours.

But what about the Mac — and desktop OSs in general?

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking of shutting down my OS X computers and unplugging the monitor from my gaming PC4. I’m not making much progress on my creative goals for 2016. I’ll write more about this at the end of year, but I am being more creative, Just not in ways I wanted. I’ll be moving the goal posts pretty heavily on my end of the year report.

Going iOS-Primary even at home would probably help eliminate some distractions. Not all, obviously, but maybe I will be just a little more focused. I tend to drive home with all these creative ideas in my head, but when actually sit down at my desk I just surf. The seasonal change isn’t helping this at all.

When I got home tonight I powered off the 15″ and put it on a shelf. The 11″ is plugged in, powered on, but with the screen closed. I still have some Lightroom plug-ins to reinstall, and I think I will always have a powered on MacBook on the table to at least make sure all my cloud files are synced to it. The desktop PC is turned on but it’s only seeing light usage.

I am so close to being able to follow Ben Brooks with going iOS Primary. In that post Ben comments: “I lost 30 minutes to just managing my Mac that morning.” Now a lot of these issues were probably related to him running a beta of macOS Sierra, and some notifications he didn’t need to clear right then, but I can sympathize with that.

It’s clear that iOS is Apple’s priority (even if there weren’t many iPad features in iOS 10). I’m happy with iOS 10. I wasn’t very happy with Sierra.

As time goes on, the hooks I have to macOS become weaker and weaker. I was chatting with a friend this morning about MacBooks, MacBook Airs, and MacBook Pros and how I’d like to have laptop with a retina screen. With how great the iPad Pro is, it will probably be a long time before I get a retina Mac, and it wouldn’t surprise me if by that time, I won’t even need a Mac.

  1. I’ve gone back to the release version when using a beta, but that’s a different argument
  2. There’s a very interesting post here about a workaround to get some presets on Lightroom Mobile
  3. I use Tableau to edit reports at work, but at home my Tableau use is incidental. I don’t even have it installed on my Macs. So while it’s something to think about when going iOS-only, it’s such an outlying case it’s almost not worth mentioning.
  4. The gaming PC is also my Plex server, so it needs to stay powered on.