Something Strange Across the River

Lots of full circle stuff these days. Like most people my age I started off on beige box monsters running a single monitor and some form of early Windows or Linux. As I worked my way deeper down the rabbit hole I experimented with multiple CRT monitors back in the day and found it unsatisfactory since they were not only hard to configure, they were actually less efficient to use just due to the huge space between them.

As the years passed and flat screen monitors became the norm, it soon became almost a badge of rank or at least an indicator that you Knew What You Were Doing if you had two or three monitors on your desk. In the last few years, turning one of them sideways to throw your documentation, editor, or IDE on became The Way. I’ve used dual monitors pretty much exclusively for going on 15 years and never really questioned it.

When they were first available, the dual monitor setup was still a reasonable size and didn’t leave you looking all over your desk for a window or dragging things for feet at a time. Now with the (comparatively) amazing resolution of laptop screens and external displays we have so much real estate to work with that we have convinced ourselves that A) we can successfully multitask, and B) we really do need to have six different applications visible at once to feel productive.

As I’ve transitioned into a more management oriented role and have to be more structured with my time both writing code and doing Boss Stuff I’ve found that having a ton of monitors is counterproductive. I end up spending too much time deciding on perfect layouts and where to put stuff that I waste valuable work time and at the same time I end up with all kinds of stuff open and clamoring for my attention. I took some time this evening to rearrange my desk and took my second external monitor away (the vertical one that was supposedly good for documentation or a view of a ton of code at once.) Now my layout is my macbook to the right connected to a 27” Dell running scaled at 3008x1692 right in front of me. My personal laptop is a 13” air and serves as a great place to dump Inkdrop or a PDF on and my 16” MBP from work has plenty of space to keep Outlook and Teams open (those old attention-stealers) so I can have a peripheral view of stuff coming in or people trying to get in touch with me while either running full-screen on the external monitor or working with a couple of documents/programs side by side.

In my Linux/BSD desktop days I was a fervent believer in virtual desktops and really loved FVWM2 and XFCE for how easy they were to use. I even have a perverse love of CDE just because the default setup on Solaris that I used so much had the 4 virtual desktops by default to help overcome the limited display size. Getting used to Stage Manager on Mac is taking a little bit of doing, but I find myself slowly coming back to my “old” workflows where I had to concentrate on one thing at a time and if I was switching contexts I was most likely switching desktops. As with everything old being new again it’s almost like treating my desktop like a terminal running tmux or screen. Constant focus on one app/task is the ideal but you still maintain the flexibility to display multiple things at once.

We’ll see how long this experiment lasts. It is running in parallel with trying out Inkdrop for note taking. I gave VimWIKI a fair shake and really like how it works, it’s just a little too fiddly for what I need. Same with Obsidian. It is a genius app but the bend towards interconnected idea and knowledge management, almost like the zettelkasten method, is just not how I work. I was happy for years with a directory full of text files that I eventually upgraded to Markdown in a VSCode workspace, but so far Inkdrop seems to be just enough of a step up that it’s gonna be a winner. With some really great plugins, vim support, and a Dracula theme (dunno, I just like that combination of grays and purples)

It’s no secret that I like notebooks/office supply stuff. Like really like it. I have a knee high stack of notebooks/journals I haven’t used yet and even more than that which I have. I also have every notebook I used in college and over the last 20 years of professional IT work. And pens. My God the pens.

I’ve given time to everything from Midori Traveler notebooks to Black n Red to Moleskine to Paperblanks to sketch books to composition books to reporters notebooks to rite in the rain journals to big thick several hundred page grid books to 9x12 engineering journals to disc-bound paper plus a bunch more I’m not thinking of. I even got froggy before a trip to Japan and bought an awesome Oberon Design notebook cover and a few refills that is absolutely beautiful.

After all of these and a dozen methods of using them I find myself back at almost square one using a similar set of tools to those I started with years ago.

I always have a pocket notebook on me for general stuff and because I used to get fairly frequent calls where I may need to take a quick note of something wrong before I could get to a computer. I started this way back in high school and used little staple bound notebooks that mom brought home from the bank. Nowadays I carry a green Kokuyo sketch book in my pocket because it fits perfectly behind my cell phone and the cover is just hard enough to make it durable. I use them a lot so have a stack of them ready to go and at only a couple of bucks a piece I’ve been known to give them to anyone who thinks they are cool.

For personal work and work-work I used to use a 9x12 spiral bound engineering notebook and if I was still doing tons of physical hardware/cabling design and work I’d still be using it. They were the perfect size to paste full sized printouts in and there was tons of space on the page for work. These days I still use and prefer a spiral bound grid notebook but I’ve downsized to Clairefontaine A5 notebooks. These things are absolutely the perfect size for daily use and have great paper. They are also a little bit more office friendly than the giant engineering notebooks since they take up less space on a conference room table.

There are a billion cover options for them but I recently have been preferring the BattleBoard field folder which holds the notebook plus a few pen loops and on the inside of the front cover is a clear polycarbonate panel that will hold a folded 8.5x11 sheet and can be written on with map markers or grease pencil. Great for checklists or ephemeral notes. As an aside BattleBoard also makes zip-up notebook covers with the clear poly on the outside so you can use them for land nav and other stuff. They are targeted at military and LEO/rescue operations but I think anybody who wants a sturdy organizer would be served well by them.

Those A5 Clairefontaine books are also what I use for personal research notes on my topics of interest. I have a bunch of other unused notebooks I feel bad about not using, but TBH I like these things so well I will probably just find someone to give a bunch of them too and stick with the winners.

The last two categories are a bit out there and probably mark me as still being kinda obsessed with pens and paper. The first one is my outdoors/travel book and journal(s). In this case it is another BattleBoard cover (the Scout) with a Rite-in-the-Rain field book insert. I have a bunch of those RITR notebooks and have used them for years and years in every kind of weather. In my experience nothing holds up better. I got started using them really heavily a few years ago when we were building warehouses in Texas and I needed something I could stash a notebook, a few pens and pencils, and a Sharpie and lumber crayon in that would survive heat, humidity, and rain. I also have and use some 4x6 top-spiral RITR notebooks for measurements, coords, sketches, and general crap when I’m working outside or on a project.

The last case is “The Journal”. And this is some place where I really fall flat. I always mean to make entries but I rarely do and then get discouraged and stop for a long time. I am trying to force myself to use the Oberon cover and refills I mentioned earlier and just Get Stuff In It. The problem I run into is that it is such a NICE piece of work that I feel like a super jackass putting in things like, “Today was a pretty calm day at work, time to work on some TF code and other stuff. Ended up stepping out for lunch and made shredded chicken in chile verde sauce for dinner.” I like the thought of a smaller format so picked up a couple of A6 Stalogy “Editors Series” books but then I stuck one in a really nice leather cover I’d bought for a Hobonichi Techo and it’s the same deal. It looks too nice for my bullshit. They are much more comfortable to write in than the Oberon refills though and its not a giant red dragon-embossed thing to haul around. I may just pop the Stalogy out of its cover and throw it in my bag for a week or two to get nice and mauled and then see if I’m less anxious about putting stuff in it. Then again, I really should just man up and realize that I spent the $$ on this stuff to enjoy it and proceed to beat the crap out of it and use it until it falls apart. I don’t think twice about spending $300 on a Benchmade knife and cutting nylon strapping with it yet I get all squirrely about a $5 piece of paper in a $20 case. (Well, actually quite a bit more in the case of the Oberon cover but ITS SO PRETTY.)

I remember the heady days of the mid 1990s to mid 2000s where fiddling around with your desktop and posting awesome screenshots of WindowMaker, FVWM2, BlackBox, XFCE, Enlightment, etc. was all the rage. Lord knows I did my share of it.

After a while it seems like you really got the guts of your window manager down and got the menu and mouse stuff the way you liked it and then started migrating away from all the animations and window decorations and other stuff. Maybe a desktop wallpaper here or there because they are neat and you stare at them all day, but you finally let the mechanism get out of your way so you can use the tool it controls. Efficiently navigating a stack of terminal windows, browsers, IDEs, and other programs becomes where it's at rather than hacking on the box that holds them.

Hell, I'd still be happy using the vanilla Sun CDE setup because the colors were so easy on the eyes and it worked so well for me for so long. At one point I had XFCE and FVVM2 themes set up to mimic it just because I was so used to it.

These days I use a Mac day in and day out at work and mostly at home. All of that broad choice of window managers is gone but they certainly do a good job of letting the OS get out of your way so you can use your stuff. All that time we used to use tweaking the configuration of the window manager can now be turned to making iTerm2 and VSCode (or your editor of choice) look and behave exactly like you want. I've always said that a GUI is nothing more than a way to get more than one terminal open on the screen and that is really staring to (re?)become the way it is used.

The vast majority of my interaction with computers, no matter the OS, is coming back to code and command line. Sure the GUI is still there and important for email and web and such, but if I'm honest I'm probably writing as much or more code now than I was in 2000, whether it be bash/powershell to do things on my box or HCL/Ruby/Ansible/whatever to enforce my will on things out in the world. Recently I even find myself using a PowerShell module to manipulate Excel files which is, in its own way, totally ass-backwards to history. They spent all the time and money integrating Visual Basic into applications now they just slam the data into an XML format and let PS have its way with it.

Seems a little strange to choose the title of a book by Nagai Kafu as the name of a blog, but I think (hope?) it will be fitting. Something Strange Across the River is a book of cities and times and people changing and with the way things have gone over the last few years change has definitely come.

I want to avoid setting any kind of fixed theme or direction for this site, I'd like to see if having a more organic approach works better than my previous attempts. Common topics will be Japanese and other literature, technical stuff from a devops/systems engineering perspective, travel, history, and probably even a little about tools, outdoor stuff, and who knows what else.