Archive for January, 2009

Laptop Ergonomics

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

The laptop.  That indispensable ergonomic train wreck.  

The heaviest laptop users, like pro football players, suffer chonic pain before the age of 30.  Unlike pro football players, they are usually not paid millions.  How to salve the agony?  One solution is the inelegantly named “Laptop in a Drawer.”

22" Samsung monitor, standard Apple wireless keyboard and mouse, Aeron chair, 30x60 cherry desk.

22" Samsung monitor with extra high stand, wireless keyboard/mouse, Aeron chair (craigslist, $300), 30x60 cherry desk (free from previous tenant). Laptop is in the desk drawer, lid closed but turned on, driving the whole setup.


  1. Docking stations:  cumbersome, unwieldy, expensive, ugly, and tied to one laptop brand.
  2. Two computers:  cost more money than one, yet make you less efficient.


  1. Laptop in desk drawer, turned on, lid closed.
  2. Bluetooth keyboard and mouse on desk.
  3. Large ergonomic monitor wired through desk to laptop in drawer.

The result is cheap (if bought used), yet optimizes for function, aesthetics and ergonomics simultaneously.  Bring the laptop into the office each day like a wallet (please don’t say purse).  Set it in the drawer, lid closed, connect power and monitor, tap the wireless keyboard, laptop wakes up, and you’re on.  Takes 10 seconds, and gives you all the advantages of both laptops and desktops.

At the end of the day, just pick up the laptop and go.  It’s now charged and backed up (if you use Time Capsule or similar), so you can work elsewhere, yet face zero risk of data loss from theft or damage.  Most importantly, these benefits cost you zero time.

More photos of my setup.

13" MacBook Core 2 Duo in desk drawer.  Wakes up from sleep automatically when in range of paired Bluetooth keyboard.  Just start typing.

13" MacBook Core 2 Duo in desk drawer. Wakes when in range of paired Bluetooth keyboard. Just start typing. At the end of the day, just grab and go.

Monitor positioned directly in front of chair for ergonomics -- push aside for meetings. Clear view out the window from desk.

View out the window from Aeron chair.

Monitor cables wired through desktop -- so that's what those little inserts are for.

Monitor cables threaded through desktop. So that's what those little inserts are for.


I don’t claim this will work for everyone.  For example, I have no idea if Windows supports the auto-wake part of this, as Mac does.  What I can say is this is cheap — especially if you value your time — and appears to solve all tradeoffs of high-intensity laptop use, with no compromises.

Cooling issue:  keep the drawer open a few inches, so you don’t cook your laptop.  I have run this way for 2.5 years with no breakdowns, so this may be excessive caution, but in an area that costs me nothing.

Simplified computing

Friday, January 23rd, 2009
Computing has become radically simpler in the past couple of years.  Everyone in Silicon Valley knows it, and everyone under 30 knows it.  This post is for the rest of the world.

How much time do you spend on these tedious tasks?  Most spend dozens of hours a year.  I spend zero, and you can too.

  1. Delete spam.
  2. Search for misplaced messages or files.
  3. Guess at, reset, or retrieve forgotten passwords.
  4. Install and maintain virus software.
  5. Install, remove, update, or otherwise wrestle with printer drivers.
Here is the prescription to avoid all that.  It generally follows the principle of “Fewer, nicer things.”
  1. Use one email address (auto-forward or abandon the rest).
  2. Access email from Gmail.  It’s spam-proof, instantly searchable, and backed up offsite.  Gmail works with your own-domain email address for $50 per year.  Gmail can also store and search all your old pre-Gmail email, so you never lose anything.  Changing from Yahoo/AOL/Hotmail to Gmail saves tons of time.
  3. Use Mac.  Time is money:  don’t waste it wrestling with drivers and antivirus software.  (Windows does still make sense if your time is of very low value, say below $10 per hour.)
  4. Use one computer.  If you work in more than one location, use a laptop.  Get rid of your other computers, or you’ll be tempted to use them, which wastes a ton of time.  Each computer requires your time and, more critically, your attention.  Own as few as possible.
  5. Automate password entry with 1Password.  Never remember or enter a password.
  6. Automate backups with Time Capsule.  Again, time is money:  don’t waste it “managing” backups.  (Soon it will be cheaper instead to incrementally back up to the Web.  Same principle applies.)

If you do all these things, you will save time, and may even find computing more fun.


The long-term stimulus: productivity

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

A key function of a head of state is to articulate national goals, reflecting what the populace already wants, but in a focused, actionable way.

Citizens follow that lead. Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote, “To get rich is glorious,” may be apocryphally attributed, but undoubtedly refocused China on capitalism, with results that speak for themselves.

Americans want to advance economically, but don’t know how.  The government is not helping. Unknown to nearly all Americans, there is a vanishingly simple formula:  maximize your net income per work hour.

What?  you may say.  It is not that simple.  What about controlling spending?  Education?  Savings and investment?  Retirement and vacations?  Yes, those matter, but all are contained within the above formula, if you define net income as any business does:  revenue minus expenses.

Controlling spending:  if you earn $100k this year and spend it all, your net income is zero.  To increase net income quickly, spend less.

Saving:  identical to controlling spending.  If you spend 20% less than you make, you have saved 20% of income.  

Investment:  identical to saving.  Bank accounts are an investment, but there are many other, better investments.  More importantly, investment income doesn’t consume your time:  conservative investments yield very high income per work hour.  Thus, spending less than you earn may not quickly increase your total gross income, but the increase per marginal work hour is incredibly high.

Education:  identical to investment.  It is a way of spending time or money to increase net income per work hour.

Retirement and vacations:  the fewer hours you work for a given income, the higher your income per work hour.  Thus, vacations and retirement go hand in hand with maximizing net income per work hour.  Again, all contained within the simple definition above.

In short, everything comes down to net income per work hour.  Economists would call this a measure of productivity.

The ultimate economically empowering statement from an American president would be “To increase productivity is glorious.”

Going truly paperless

Friday, January 16th, 2009

The hardest part of going paperless is getting everyone to stop mailing you stuff.  Even when you tell American Express Merchant Services that you want everything by email, they still send a paper annual report.  There are still a few service providers that don’t even offer e-billing.  And you still have to fax signed contracts, right?


Take a snapshot of a document, upload it to Evernote.  They store it forever, for cheap, and they scan images for text, which you can then search from your computer or iPhone.

This is the end of physical files.  After 3 months of use, I have found Evernote’s text recognition to be almost perfect.  I type in “American Express,” it finds all the related images I’ve uploaded, and I can look at images of original documents.

Contracts?  Counterparties email them to me, I print, sign, photograph, and email back.  Evernote keeps a permanent searchable archive of the original signed document.  Again, no physical files.

At first, I used a Canon Digital Elph camera to capture the documents.  Would have preferred to use the camera on my iPhone — Evernote offers iPhone software — but the iPhone cam cannot focus closer than 3 feet or so, so it seemed useless.

Until today.  I put ordinary reading glasses in front of the iPhone camera.  Physics is physics:  reading glasses correct farsighted cameras just as well as farsighted humans.  I tried it, and it worked beyond expectations.  Now it’s a one-step process:  photograph a document with iPhone, and it’s stored and searchable at Evernote, forever.  Done.

Of course, it is cumbersome and un-hip to hold grandpa’s reading glasses in front of my phone.  Turns out that accessories maker Griffin has solved this problem with the Clarifi — an iPhone shell with built-in macro lens.

This, together with more obvious things like e-billing and Skype, permit true total business mobility.  For all you know, I’m writing this from Barcelona…