looking at my home office setup

There’s probably oodles of articles like this by now, but this is mine.

So, since roughly march last year, I’ve worked exclusively from home. At the start, I simply plonked down the company laptop on the dinner table, but then gradually reworked and upgraded the setup.

This is how it looks today:

Let’s break things down bit by bit, and explain the history and purpose of the individual parts.

The monitor is an ASUS 34″ gaming monitor that I bought when I finally retired my old All-in-One deskop PC and got a plain midi-tower unit instead. That PC is fit for gaming, and used to sit on top of the desk, behind the monitor. Alas, the company laptop wants to be used daily, so I needed a permanent space for it. That means that now the PC is strapped to the side of the desk.

The desk itself is a motorized standing desk. As you can see, it is pretty deep, but only 80cm wide. It is that deep because by now it is old enough to buy alcohol in the States. And back in 2000, desks had to fit ginormous CRT monitors. The small width is due to the fact that it originally was part of a combination next to a much larger desk. When I was still working in Hamburg, it accompanied me through several offices (all part of the same company group), and when I moved to Berlin in 2015, they let me take it to my new home. Having it in the living room is ok, as it doesn’t take up too much space, and the cats appreciate its placement close to the window.

Hop Sing appreciates the warm sitting place

When I sit, I sit on an IKEA stool. It is one of these ergonomic things that keeps wobbling a bit, thus allegedly strengthening my back.

Eventually I attached the monitor to a heavy duty arm. The main purpose of that arm is to free up desk real estate. The rather bulky original monitor stand, plus PC, plus Notebook, plus peripherals made the desk too cramped.

As the PC is strapped to the side of the table, I also managed to route all the cables more or less prettily.

All I/O peripherals like mouse, webcam, keyboard, etc. are attached to the monitor and a switching USB hub. So when I switch devices, I press one button on the USB-switch and also select a different input on the monitor. That is pretty painless and saves me from constant re-plugging of devices.

For the longest time, I used a Logitech BRIO webcam. It is nice enough, and especially the built-in microphones are pretty decent. But as I do not live alone in this place, I most of the time use a set of Bose QuietControl 30 Bluetooth earplugs. The battery lasts for about two days of calls and the active noise cancelling lets me be undisturbed.

the camera I am not actually using anymore

When I am not sitting or standing, I walk. Right under the desk sits a desk treadmill. To use it, I just push the desk back about 1 meter (it is on wheels) and start the thing up. That takes about 30 seconds of effort, and then I’m off. By now I can actually walk and work at the same time, this blogpost is being written as I am walking!

Overall, I spend about only a quarter of my desk time sitting, the rest of the time mostly standing or walking.

In order to keep my hands and wrists healthy, I have switched to an ergonomic keyboard and a wireless vertical mouse. The keyboard has a detachable numblock, and I am quite happy without that thing — I need it only rarely, and it does save that sweet desk real estate!

The monitor has built-in speakers, but frankly, they aren’t the best. Instead I plugged in a pair of Creative monitor speakers. They are small enough but have decent enough sound for YouTube videos and the occasional game.

As my job has me do lots of videocalls with various degrees of expectations regarding my „professional look“, I eventually attached a simple dark gray roll-up shade to the top of my bookshelf. In day-to-day use, it is rolled up and hidden, but whenever I do not want to show off my collection of roleplaying books, I can pull it down to get a nice clean background.

Behind the gray roll-up is a greenscreen roll-up. Using Open Broadcast Studio I can key out the background and do other video shenanigans to make my life easier and looking more professional.

Pro-tip if you want to use a green screen: Do not skimp on light. The better your lighting, the easier it is to key out the green. I added two inexpensive Neewer brand light sticks to my setup — one lives inobtrusively in the corner and the other moonlights as a workbench light and gets carried over whenever I need to do „proper“ videoconferencing.

The desk has a simple LED light stick on a gooseneck stand attached to it. It has some brightness and light temperature settings, which helps a lot with eyestrain in the evenings. As the desk has no drawers or similar, I attached an IKEA pegboard to the side, to hold cables, adapters, headphones, and so on.

The latest addition to my setup has been a Sony A7S digital camera, sitting atop a cheap camera arm. It is attached to the USB-hub via an Elgato Camlink 4K stick and thus provides quite an excellent alternative to the Logitech webcam. People I videoconference with keep noticing the vast quality difference. Having the background blurred by actual optics instead of some algorithm is really an upgrade. (which I wouldn’t have afforded myself if I hadn’t gotten a good deal for the camera from someone who realized that they didn’t use it all that often.

If you want to use your DSLR as a webcam: Check if it either has a firmware update that lets you use it directly through USB, or that it at least can deliver a „clean“ HDMI output. The latter means that there are no on-screen menus visible on the HDMI signal. The Sony A7S does both, but I learned that the USB-webcam functionality is pretty bad. It requires a certain sequence of switches each time you turn the camera on, and doesn’t work with all programs on a Mac either.

The Elgato Camlink solves that rather elegantly. The other thing I did was to get a so-called „dummy battery“, which you put into the camera instead of a battery and that then draws power directly from a USB charger. I set the focus to automatic, the camera to „video mode“ and now I just need to power the USB cable and everything works.

(if you use Windows 10 and the stick keeps disconnecting — download the Camlink capture software, click on the preferences icon while holding down CTRL and then select „Isochronous“ as USB Transfer Mode. That certainly helped me)

this is why we can’t have nice things

As you may know, I am involved in https://darcy.is, an attempt to build a better social network atop of Solid. The developers are chugging along at a slow but steady pace, expect a new version to come out soon.

Solid itself is a really intriguing and awesome idea: Everything you want to share or publish, regardless of public or for a limited audience gets stored on your Solid Pod, completely uncoupling data from application and publisher.

So your theoretical Facebook posts and likes and comments would not be stored and owned by Facebook. They would just handle the presentation and feed and recommendations and so on. And if you want to change the network, you get to keep all your content and contacts.

Now, the way Solid is designed has one big constraint: You cannot change the URL that points at your pod, ever. If you do, all the links between your content and that of others would get lost otherwise. So, if a pod provider would got belly up, that would be a bad thing.

One of the earliest pod providers is solid​.community. Or rather. Was. The service is shut down. Which is fine, it was advertised as experimental anyway, it was free and purposely only had a very small storage space. It was meant for those earliest of adopters and for developers to see how all this works.

Alas, someone thought it would be helpful to keep it alive and managed to migrate everything to solidcommunity​.net.

Which is also fine and helpful, except two things:

  1. I, as a user on solid​.community learned about this whole thing from someone completely uninvolved in this process, basically by accident. The move included my login data, whatever private data I may or may not have stored on that Pod, everything. I have never agreed to this, nor do I have any idea who the new person is. That is a major GDPR violation, and erodes a LOT of trust.
  2. The move is useless. As I pointed out above, now that the URL is changed, none of the linked data is properly linked anymore. It completely broke everything. And considering the amount of data (I think there was 2 MB of available space), it is not even a thing of „hey, people probably want to keep this!“.
useless people links on my Solid Pod

Seriously, my Fellow Nerds, especially if you work on something that promises privacy: These things matter! No one will adopt your project, if you fuck this up, and here, you fucked up quite a bit.

Before you rant at me: Yes, I am quite aware that what I was using was basically a test system. And I bet that 99,9% of all other users of that system knew this too and acted accordingly. I highly doubt that any actual private data was compromised. And I don’t think there is any foul play involved. People did what they thought would be best. But, well, guess what: They thought wrong!

Online Interaction types — what is there, what do I look for?

While going through the Spreadsheet I created as a tool after writing the last blogpost here, I realized that what was completely obvious to me, isn’t necessarily to others. Mostly because the whole argument about the details was mostly in my head.

So, let’s write it down:

To start, and to have a common vocabulary, we should set down a few basic communication model parameters:

  • Realtime versus Asynchronous.
  • One to one vs One to Many or even Many to Many
  • Closed vs Open
Realtime is the discussion we have at the breakfast table, or when we trashtalk our opponents inside a videogame, in a meeting, over the phone or even text or video chats. The key element is that it happens in real time, attendance is perceived and people generally consider it rude if you make them wait for an answer too long.Asynchronous communication is much more robust in regard to time constraints. In olden times, we simply knew that the messenger pigeon will take a while to deliver that missive to the King, so we waited. Letters took their time, and it was acknowledged that the recipient will then need time and effort to compose a proper answer.
One to One is a discussion with just two participants. That can be realtime (a phone call) or asynchronous (a letter).One to Many used to be the prerogative of official proclamations, public speeches and, later, newspapers and radio or tv broadcasts.
Many to Many is something that we have quite a lot today on the Internet. A group of people communicating within itself, or with another group of people. Sometimes in there, you have a few separate one-to-one conversations. Sometimes everyone is listening to just one person, sometimes everyone is broadcasting at once while no one listens.
Closed communications strive to be private — no one outside the elected circle may listen in — or they may listen in, but they are not allowed to participate.Open on the other hand is there for all to see, hear and join.

And on top of those models, we have the selectors by which people decide which communications they want to see or even participate in:

  • Serendipitous discovery
  • by topic
  • by curator

Serendipitous discovery of new topics, persons and discussions is something that is, in my mind, incredibly important these days. We need to be exposed to ideas and persons we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. We often don’t know that we were missing an idea or something before we actually found it. I cannot search for unknown unknowns.

What I can look for are topics: Show me articles about that car I plan to buy. Or I’m looking for a place to discuss my new favorite game. Systems that make it easy for me to find those topics are helpful — but they tend to keep me in that bubble, I don’t often learn about things outside that topic.

Human Curators of content are incredibly important. Malcolm Gladwell calls them "Mavens" — a group of people that hunt out information about things and then strive to educate people about those. These curators are often very similar to a discovery by topic, because they usually have a theme, a thing that they are mostly interested in. But not exclusively so. Everyone has side hobbies, interests that are not obvious, and these make their way into the communication stream of a curator too.

Finally, we need to look at the different bits of communication and who owns them: This is less interesting in a face to face conversation in a room, without any technical tools, but gets really important very fast if you do things over the Internet.

Take this blog article here. It is written by me, posted on my Blog. I wholly own and control it — I can delete it if I want to, I can edit and revise it.

I also control the comments that are submitted on this Blog. If you have something to say about this and want to correct me, you can submit a comment here, that everyone will then be able to read.

But I will still own the comment in some sense — I will be able to hide it, delete it, even completely ban you from ever commenting again. Heck, WordPress even allows me to edit the comment, putting words into your mouths that you have never intended to write!

(I could have a variety of reasons to do so: I found what was written offensive. Or deemed it to be just not helpful for the discussion I wanted to have. Or I just don’t like the commentator. Some of these reasons can be completely legitimate, some are somewhat to very hostile)

If you want to assure ownership of your writing, you will have to do so on your own Blogpage. You could write an article of your own, pointing at mine and say whatever you want to say and I could not immediately delete it.

Different communication systems handle this ownership differently — Twitter, Mastodon and similar systems don’t know any post-comment separation. Everything is a post, and every post fully belongs to the person who made it. That has upsides (as no one can maliciously remove your contribution) but also downsides (no one can easily take stewardship of a discussion, not even with the noblest of intents)

Lastly, there are some concerns about safety: Sadly, there will always be people who use communication systems to harass others. They could use technology to stalk people, flood their screens with hateful messages or simply spread rumors and lies about them. A good system will need a few tools to address that:

  • mute a person (prevent them from talking to you. They can still see your content, but are unable to show up on your screen)
  • block a person (same as muting, but they will also be unable to see your content)
  • throw someone out of the whole communication network (they cannot interact with anyone on this system anymore, at all.)

Not all of these tools should be in everyone’s hands (I should be able to decide that someone cannot see my things anymore, but a complete ban needs a higher and accountable authority), and not all of these need to be applied for a lifetime — sometimes it is sufficient to mute someone on just this one conversation, or for just a month. Sometimes people learn after a ban and come back as a better person.

So, having set down some definitions and ideas, how does all that relate to what I expect from a system that allows me to interact with others on a daily basis?

  • In case you haven’t noticed — I love the serendipity aspect of the Internet. It is a machine that keeps showing me new and exciting things and people.
  • I also am more interested in persons than topics — so I have a greater need to follow those, instead of just subscribing to car-news and roleplaying games.
  • Even if everyone comes with the very best intentions — moderation of a discussion is important. And I prefer if those moderation powers come in very small packages, limiting the scope of the moderation to just certain parts. If not, this can quickly sour a whole community if things go wrong.
  • I believe in ambient findability. That means that it should always be easy to see the whole discussion, and where they branch off. Threaded views are key for this.
  • Text — I love memes. Really. Communicating ideas and feelings with bits of moving pictures is a great thing. And I love gorgeous photography or a well-made video. But to convey complex ideas, Text is still the best carrier. Sure, make it illustrated and hyperlinked text, where you can look up related information. But due to so many restrictions (screen size, disabilities, can’t have audio on because I’m in a quiet place, I just don’t have the bandwith because #Neuland)
  • Lastly, and this has nothing to do with the things I outlined above, whatever system we use to build our social media stream with, it should be as open, portable and vendor-lockin-free as possible. Because we learned the hard way what happens otherwise…