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.
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