Luxuriating in technological epicness

These days I spend a lot of time sitting at the computer. It’s not my ideal—if I had no family responsibilities, I would probably split my time between reading, walking around, and hanging out with friends—but my paying work is 100% computer based, most of the non-paying-work things I want to accomplish require a computer, and my primary non-paying-work responsibility (helping raise our kids) has suddenly become computer based, with two of the four students now actively learning web development. (The third, Jerry, has no interest in computers but a great interest in woodworking, something I have promised we will learn together starting this year—so there’s that. And the fourth, our Downs child Peter, is a whole other experience that takes me away from the computer in ways I am grateful for—I’m thinking that perhaps he and I will do a little gardening this summer while the other three are off to help their sister Maggie at her farm in SW Virginia once school is done for the year.)

So I find myself at the computer most of my waking hours, even for recreation—mainly watching films and TV series, I’m not a gamer at all—and investing money in improving the experience, even hundreds of dollars, works out to be a very worthwhile expense. Provided the money is around. Which lately it happens to be.

I mentioned that after many years of using a decently powered laptop (with external monitors, keyboard, and mouse) I recently decided to pass that along to a kid and buy a nice modern computer, probably quadrupling my processing power. Very nice! At the same time I gathered together some older monitors (at roughly $100 apiece they seem to collect around here) and rigged things so that I had one to either side of my main monitor, turned 90 degrees so they were tall and skinny. That was a great decision. Most all of my work involves long stretches of text, mainly source code for web pages or software, which rarely stretches more than 120 characters horizontally but goes on forever horizontally. So having a tall, skinny display allowed me to go from displaying, say 50 lines at once to 100 lines. And being able to take in more context at once without scrolling is, well, luxurious. On the monitor to the right I tend to keep my mail reader open, tall and skinny (doesn’t need to be any wider). On the left I’ll often have a browser page displaying reference documentation—also does well tall and skinny—while I’m working on computer code in the short and wide middle monitor. The increment in convenience, while not huge, is present all the time, and so cumulatively my computer time has become much more pleasant.

But, that middle monitor. It is short and wide—unusally wide, actually, a 21:9 proportion like widescreen theater film, about 50% wider than the standard format for monitors and TVs these days—I bought it originally so I could have that 50% extra, and fit three windows side by side where I usually would have two. The kids laughed when they saw my new setup, saying it looked like a Star Wars tie fighter. And I have to say that with the tall monitors to either side, the space above and below the short wide monitor in the middle seemed … wasted …

Early this week I was listening to part of a podcast for software developers when one of the hosts mentioned that the price of 4K (ultra-high resolution) monitors had dropped quite a bit, that he had bought a large one (32″ diagonal, as opposed to the common 22-24″), thought after setting it up that he would hate having such a large luminous thing on his desk—saying that all he expected to get was a tan—but ended up loving it for the extra real estate it provided. I trust the guy, and I looked at my own setup, then looked up the dimensions of his 32″ monitor (which has the usual 16:9 proportion) and realized that it would actually be just a few inches wider than my current middle monitor … and would fill in the blank space top and bottom. Plus … 4K! That is twice the resolution of my current monitors, meaning it would be like having four of those in a 2×2 grid. The price ($350) was in my discretionary comfort zone, so I thought it would be worth a try. I ordered one, and thanks to modern capitalist magic I was installing it two days later.

I already love it! I thought the main problem would be that, since the ultra-high resolution makes everything half as big in both dimensions, I would need to figure out how much bigger things (fonts, windows, etc) should be made to compensate—surely not as large as they used to be, but how large would be acceptable? (Keeping in mind that the smaller the things, the more I could fit on the screen.) Well, the happy news is that I’m perfectly satisfied with the tinier versions of my windows. Not only does this mean I have quadruple the space a standard monitor would give me, but even the tiny text (which I find perfectly comfortable to read) looks nicer because the small characters look sharper than when they are twice as big vertically and horizontally.

And since I can keep the text very small, that means I can have lots of it on the screen at once. One of my text editors (I use several), when stretched from top to bottom of the screen, shows 150 lines of text, rather than the old 55 lines. This is coding heaven! And I have to imagine that writers would like it as well.

One of the peculiarities of this setup is that the huge monitor sits roughly 18″ from me—right in my face—so I’m keeping tabs to see if that leads to any sort of physical problems. But there is definitely one physical benefit, namely an immersive experience. Where the smaller monitor filled only part of my field of vision, this more or less fills what I can take in clearly all at once, even when I move my eyes without moving my head. (I always had to turn my head to see the monitors to either side, which is kind of the point for them—different headspaces.)

Which leads to an unexpected fringe benefit—watching video is a great experience! The colors on this new monitor seem very good, accurate and vivid (I haven’t actually compared side by side with the old monitor, but that’s my impression). And so watching a well-photographed film or TV program is way more engrossing. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Nordic Noir TV shows (something I should write about separately), and just after getting the new monitor I started watching the series River on Netflix. Initially I thought I wasn’t going to like it—the approach has some elements I generally don’t care for, and the first episode left me cold and a bit confused. But days later I’ve finished the fourth of six episodes, and I’m hooked! Perhaps the show just got progressively better, but I have also noticed myself noticing how good the production looks, and there have been stretches where I’ve mostly lost myself in the story, unusual for me … and quite possibly due to having the video fill my field of vision.

Sick of the sound of my own voice

Since I began this latest streak of posting with an uncharacteristic meta-post, it’s fitting that I mark the end of it with another one. It may have been clear, especially toward the end, that my heart wasn’t really in it. I did manage to venture out of my comfort zone a few times, but mostly it was sounding to me like the same old stuff, not at all the purpose of the exercise.

Which isn’t to say I’ve given up on writing about such things, just that the blog format is not really suitable for what I need to do now. I think I need to tackle bigger chunks, go a bit deeper, back them up with some research, and—most important—take the time to draft and re-draft, with an eye to communicating clearly and directly and kindly, solely for the sake of the reader. That need doesn’t fit in with my usual blogging cycle, which goes from initial idea to finished product in a matter of hours.

I haven’t yet decided for or against continuing this blog in other ways. Certainly if I ever write something more substantial and bring that to the point where I want it to see the light of day, I’ll announce it (or maybe post it) here. But I’m also thinking about revisiting my initial approach to blogging—the one everyone used when blogging began—keeping a record of what is going on with me and whatever interesting things I run across.