Tag Archives: hack

Tools of The Trade: The Laptop in My Pocket

Last Monday, the night before I was due to cover a big conference, my nearly brand-new MacBook Air died: suddenly, completely, and unrecoverably. After hurling a stream of expletives in the general direction of Cupertino, I paid a visit to the Apple store conveniently located next door to the conference hotel. They confirmed that my MacBrick was really most sincerely dead, but there was no way they’d be able to fix it before the end of the conference.

Before leaving the store, though, I picked up a Bluetooth keyboard. That, plus my iPhone and a few other items I already had with me, became my new laptop. I was amazed at how well the arrangement worked, and also at how many people came over to comment on my setup. Here’s what it looked like:

iPhone: the new laptop.

iPhone: the new laptop.

I used the Pages iOS app ($9.99), a standard tabletop tripod (about $10 at any photo store), a Gary Fong iPhone tripod adapter (ridiculously overpriced at $20, but much better-looking than a duct-taped binder clip), and an Apple Bluetooth keyboard ($69).

Considering its $110 price tag, it’s a surprisingly capable system. The Pages app stores files on the iCloud service, so they’re automatically backed up and accessible from anywhere. The keyboard is very quiet and has a feel I’m accustomed to, and the tripod adjusts to hold the phone at whatever angle I need. Of course it also has a built-in web browser, email client, and the ability to install pretty much any other kind of program one might need.

I’m not sure I’d want to rely on this as my only computer on a business trip, but I’ll certainly pack the components for it in case I need a backup again.

Oh, and my regular laptop is once again among the living – my local Apple store fixed it under warranty after I got home.

Tools of The Trade: Stand-Up Desk

This is the first of what might turn into a series of posts about tools and tricks I’ve found handy for my work. I figured I’d start with the thing most people would notice first on walking into my office: my standing-height desk.

I switched to working on my feet in the summer of 2010, so if you’re wondering whether I stole the idea from ├╝ber-geek Gina Trapani, I didn’t. While I was ahead of that high-profile example, I’m hardly a pioneer.

In my case, the desire to stand grew out of a simple need for a new chair. While wasting way too much time shopping for one, I stumbled on the stand-up desk idea, and liked it immediately. Rather than buy a new chair, I could simply adjust my desk and dispense with the seat entirely.

Like Gina, I’m fortunate enough to own an Ikea “Jerker” desk, a brilliantly designed piece of furniture that the company has since discontinued. An afternoon’s work raised everything to the appropriate level. Most of the time involved unplugging, removing, then reinstalling my computer and its connected peripherals. I also borrowed a tall stool that was sitting around the house, so I could take occasional breaks from standing while building up my “work legs.”

Standing height desk.

This is where I take a stand.

After the first two weeks, my endurance was up to about four hours. Within a few months, I could stand for most of the day without really noticing. It’s just the way I work. I wasn’t doing this for the exercise, but gained some leg strength nonetheless; my comfortable bicycling pace increased a gear or two. I’ve also lost the pain that used to creep into my spine after a long day of sitting, and my computer is above the easy reach of a six-year-old child, a feature that’s quite handy in my house.

The transition wasn’t painless. I needed the stool a lot at the beginning, and it’s still useful from time to time. I also discovered early on that long periods of standing demand comfortable footwear. My office is uncarpeted, so anything less padded than tennis shoes gets tiring pretty fast. The exact height of the desk also seems to matter more now than it did when I was sitting. Belt height is perfect for working at the keyboard. Writing by hand, however, calls for a surface closer to the bottom of my ribcage, so on the rare occasions when I do that I sit on the stool and lower it a bit.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with this arrangement. I’m not planning to invade Iraq anytime soon, but for the less complex – and generally more successful – projects I do, a high desk works quite well. It seems to make me focus more on what I’m doing and find fewer distractions. In other words, it makes me a more upstanding worker.

Simple Hack: Magnetic Mac

There are powerful magnets hidden inside the screens of recent-model iMacs*; mine has them all around the edges. I don’t know why Apple put them there, but here’s my favorite use: holding documents while I transcribe them. The picture shows one of my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother (which I’m blogging about here), clipped securely to the corner of my screen while I type it in.

What will you use yours for?

iMac with letter clipped to screen magnet.

My iMac, showing built-in document holder.

* Thanks to fellow science journalist Maryn McKenna for pointing them out.

A Cheap, Easy DIY Minox Developing Reel

I’ve had a 1950s-vintage Minox Model B camera for awhile, but haven’t used it much, mainly because it’s so darned expensive to shoot with. There’s only one lab in the US that still offers reliable processing, and they charge about a dollar per frame to develop a roll and print proofs. That’s pricey for such low-resolution shots. I often develop 35mm and medium-format film at home, but Minox 8×11 film won’t fit on a standard reel, and the only dedicated Minox tanks ever made are now collectible antiques. Fed up with this situation, I applied my usual scrounge-up-some-parts-and-make-them-work approach. Here’s my procedure (click the photos for details on each step).

My TriPod Hack

I had grand plans to build an elegant, good-looking tripod adapter for my fourth-generation iPod Touch, so the videos I shoot with it wouldn’t be so shaky. Today I said to hell with all that and just hacked together what I could from available materials. Who cares what a camera mount looks like, anyway?