Working from home and the tech I use

My messy desk

The lock-down has forced us to work from home and while some of us have been used to it (I used to work from home from 2015 to 2018 and still I find working from home more productive!) but a number of my friends have been finding it quite challenging. While there is a mental-shift required to be productive from a place that is typically considered to be a space for you and your family’s private time, there is also a lack of support/infrastructure that poses a challenge to be productive while working from home.

Since I have been experimenting with technology and gadgets to find the best productivity system, I always find that my home setup has been far more productive than my work setup. A lot of people have asked me about my home setup (Warning: I love tinkering with my systems and even an incremental value-add often matters to me. Result — I have many redundancies and multiple devices!) so here is a snapshot of what my work from home setup consists of.

The Hardware

I juggle between multiple machines. But the main workhorse is a desktop Chakra (Yes, my machines have got their own names, ) that I assembled myself; and this is quite a powerful machine for my use (Nova Benchmark Score of 2797). This is connected to a 27inch 4k display. It has 9th Gen Intel i7, 32 GB of RAM and Nvidia GTX 1660 Graphics card. The processor and RAM are primarily needed for my occasional Photoshop and Lightroom (I have a massive library of more than 15k photos) work. I have a iMac 27” 5k as backup (I love the Retina display of that machine for colour accuracy) but the fusion drive in that machine sucks. My custom-built desktop has Samsung NVME 770 pro ssd harddrive that makes this whole setup a very zippy. 

I have a couple of (in fact three if I include my office allocated machine) laptops that I use when I am on move. A 13” MacBook Pro Retina (Nandaka, this one quite old but still a great machine and I am waiting for Apple to fix the keyboard on MacBook Pro so that I can upgrade) and MacBook Air 2017 model. Apart from this tow Mac laptops, I have a Dell XPS 13 (Asi) with i7 and QHD touch screen display. While I have multiple machines but I have almost established use (apart from being a backup when one fails) for them.

At home and photo-editing: I need fast processing and a big screen, so it is primarily done on the Desktop.

Professional Travel for a day or two: MacBook Air. There is no better machine than this if you are in Apple ecosystem and crave for a good keyboard.

Personal travel for longer duration or vacations: MacBook Pro as I need a bit more firepower for photo editing needs.

The Dell XPS 13 is a backup in most cases or when I need to extract more juice from Excel, which is always better on a Windows machine.

I have a couple of mobile devices that I use along with these machines. I have the latest iPhone 11 Pro Max and iPad Pro (11 inch, 256Gbs) with Apple Pencil 2 and Keyboard. iPad is very handy for all the meetings and note taking. I am considering using this for my work travels for a day or so but did not find it that conducive when I need to work on reports or word docs. But with the mouse support just launched I am going to try this. These days of lockdown and work from home, I often use iPad for my video calls as it is much easier to carry and I use my laptops and desktops to quickly search information or files if needed for these calls. iPad also is my go to device for media consumption and for reading magazines and PDFs.

Apart from these machines, I use Logitech K850 keyboard and mouse combo. The keyboard allows me to wireless connect to 3 machine and I can use this as input to any of my laptops or desktop with just press of one button. I crave for a mechanical keyboard (I have a TVS Gold somewhere in my storage) but there are not many that can give me the ease that Logitech K850 gives. But, this is going to change. I am waiting for Das Keyboard 5Q. Nobody makes keyboards better than Das guys and this one is just drool-worthy.

For all the video calls, I use my Airpods 2 which have far better range and clarity than any other small wireless earphones. Also they seamlessly integrate in Macbook, Ipad, Iphone without any hassle. But these do not have great battery life; they don’t last more than 3 hours. I also have a couple of headphones (Sony WH1000XM3 and V-moda Crossfade Wireless 2) that I use as backup and for listening music. I have been using V-moda for quite sometime for its sound quality and multi-point Bluetooth connectivity. But Sony is the one I use on flights for its noise cancellation. It would replace my V-moda Crossfade the day it gets multipoint Bluetooth connection so that I can pair with a number of devices simultaneously. Sound quality is now almost at par.

The Software

Windows and MacOS: I am love to work on cross platform so I look for those solutions which integrate with multiple mobile and computing platform. Way back in early 2000, I experimented with Linux (Red Hat was the first distro I used) and Windows and got introduced to MacOS in 2007. Since then I have been a multiOS person. But now, it is mainly MacOS and Windows. Linux apart from being open-source does not add much value to my workflow.

Evernote: I have been a power user of Evernote since 2008. It has more than 4000 notes and I use it for file archiving and storing anything that I might need in future. The OCR feature and multi-platform availability makes it almost the best solutions for personal knowledge management. The one feature which is quite handy is that I can directly scan a business card and it stores the information in text format and sends a linked connection request to the person.

Microsoft 365 — While there are multiple word processing software I used in past but this is the gold standard. I have subscription that gives me 1TB of storage space on OneDrive and all the office suite applications. But I use word processing software ‘as word processing software’ for editing my professional documents and not to write things.

I write in Ulysses or Scrivener for long text.

OmniFocus: This is my preferred ToDo list app. But it might get redundant as I am trying to consolidate my workflow and Notion does allow me to manage my ToDo. The only problem with Notion is its mobile app.

Notion: I use Notion for my personal knowledge wiki and management. While earlier I was primarily dependent on Evernote for all the knowledge management needs but gradually I am using Evernote for note taking (with Penultimate it works great) and a lot of my knowledge management is happening on Notion.

Roam Research: This the note taking and personal knowledge management app of the future. But it is still in very early stage of its development. It has immense potential because of its contextual linking of text and bi-directional relationship of notes.

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom: I use Lightroom to process my raw files and organize the photos that I have. I have quite a large library of photos and Lightroom’s catalog organizing capabilities are unparalleled. Adobe Photoshop is very rarely used. In fact, for photo retouching especially the portraits I use Luminar 4, and it is quite amazing for basic retouching.

Affinity Publisher: This is my preferred software (since InDesign is subscription based and I am not keen to pay for a subscription that I barely use) for designing anything. Quite cheap and very capable.

CalibreThe opensource and free software to manage the large library of pdfs and ebooks that I have. It also can run in server mode to help one access these files from anywhere.

Woven: This is in beta Calendar application that has some great features. I use this is to sync my Google Calendar.

The Enablers

Two internet connections (one with static IP address): I had learnt my lessons early when I started working from home. You cannot trust on one Internet connection. Airtel, one of the main service providers in my area has good reliability but it speed is yet not there. They are upgrading but not yet fully functional. So I have an Airtel which is only used for video calling and backup when my other connection does not work. The other connection has 300mbps speed. I also got a dedicated IP address which allows me to access my home cam and document library from anywhere. The high speed connection is hooked into Netgear Orbi ( a mesh router with one satellite) that has a lot of capabilities and provides very reliable connectivity in multiple rooms without any dead zones.

Private Internet AccessI have a subscription for a VPN service that allows me to use public wifi (hotels) cafe etc. without any security concerns. Not many people know but you are at great risk of losing your privacy and key data when you access any public wifi.

Apple Time Machine and One Drive: I have Apple Time Machine (Airport Extreme 2TB) and OneDrive configured to sync and backup all my key folders. This also allows me to seamlessly work from any device and not worry about duplication and data loss.

Apart from these online backups I do a regular offline backup almost every month on physical hard drive to ensure that I have a copy of my key files.

What I read in 2018 (Non-fiction)

This post is almost a couple of months late. It was begging attention in my draft folder for at least six weeks. Finally here is the list of books that I manage to finish last year.

  • Conflicts of Interest by Sunita Narain : One of the most engaging and informative book that I read last year! Sunita Narain gave first person account of her fight against the corporate lobbies for better air quality, for saving environment and for our health. I would recommend everyone to read this book. Here is an interview that she gave about the book for more information. This book is also my favourite because it talks about many of the things that I have been working in different capacities in my professional life and I could connect very well with what she achieved and challenges she overcame.
  • Skin in the Game by Nicholas Nassim Taleb: This one is really hard hitting and showed mirror to experts and consultant in us. In one line, it told us to not give a hoot to anyone who does not have any skin in the game. This books if full of quotable quotes and can change the way you deal with your life and people around you. He also touched some controversial topics. For example, he minced no words in warning us agains the minority appeasement and how whole population is forced to submit to preferences of a tiny minority.
  • Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker: Taleb attacked Steven Pinker in his latest book “Skin in the Game” and I read these two books back to back. In fact, I read this one before Taleb’s. Taleb made some strong arguments and was brutal in his criticism of Pinker but this book is a rare achievement in scope and relevancy in today’s time. However, there is =a word of caution, Pinker has used his intellectual muscle power (and often questionable quantitative data) to give sanctity to some shitty rhetoric on pressing topics. He presents a very optimistic view of the world, yet misses some key concerns and challenges. For example, in is view we should be optimistic (and not feel guilty) that we would be able to solve climate change problem by geo-engineering.
  • Nine Alogrithms That Changed the Future by John MacCormick: Those who work on computer programming or are technology enthusiast will find the book very informative. I enjoyed reading about how search engine indexing, page ranking and public-key cryptography algos were developed.
  • Now: The Physics of Time by Richard Muller: One of those books that require attention and effort to justice to authors efforts and erudition. Richard Muller gives us the basics of space-time and then goes on to unfurl many topics from quantum physics, different space-time theories and then proposes his own theory of space-time. Highly recommended for anyone looking to get a more detailed understanding of space-time, physical theory of universe, blackholes..etc.

Bihar: A Glorious Past and An Uncertain Future

As I walked past a small hut the chorus of ‘ek duni do.. do duni char.. caught my attention. The sound was coming from the hut on my left. I took  this route many times, but never stopped to have a second look on the hut. It was so commonplace in a village full of huts. I stopped and so did a couple of people who were with me. One of them was a visitor from Japan.

There were around 20 kids in the hut, swaying back and forth and reciting  do ka pahada (table of two). Some of the kids seemed too young to be learning tables.  The teacher was nowhere to be seen.  Yes, this hut was one of the several centres under Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). The kids spotted us, some kids stopped their recital and took stock of us. Soon, they realized that we are some random visitors making them victim of our stupid  curiosity. Soon a young lady, barefoot, hastily covering her head with pallu walked in to the hut. She was the teacher. Suddenly, there was more enthusiasm and participation in the recital.

ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali
ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali

There was a sudden onrush of mixed emotions. Nostalgia, pride, frustration, helplessness, happiness and hope were all mingled together. The kids were oblivious of the odds against them. Uncertain of what lies ahead of the hut. Many of them may were there because their parents sent them to get free food there. And, many of them will dropout after this school. But some of them will surely defy many odds to achieve what their parents never dreamt of.

Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali
Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali

It was very ironic. We were in Vaishali: birthplace of Lord Mahavir, workplace of Budhha and the capital of the glorious Licchavi clan. The hut was on our way to Ashokan piller and Abhishek Pushkarni : two reminders of our glorious past. Every person that you will meet from this area will not forget to highlight our past glory. I too, do it without fail when I meet someone who wants to know more about my home state. Often, this helps when I am not keen to discuss the embarrassing present and uncertain future.

A few meters away from that hut, one can find the world peace pagoda and several other palatial Buddhist stupa and temples. These stupas and temples are constructed by several Buddhist countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan etc. Every year a horde of tourist visit this place to experience and appreciate the work of Budhha and Mahavira.

I look at these temples and stupas which are meant for celebrating the teachings of our enlightened souls and several questions pop up. Would  kids there in the hut be able to enjoy and celebrate the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira? What if there were a few schools also built along with the stupas? What if there were enough schools here? What if teachers were inspired by  selfless services of Budhha and Mahavira?

2% extra for credit card payments?

There are many shopkeepers that insist on 2-5% extra for payments made through credit cards. And often, we have to either to pay the demanded extra money or move to another shop. The 2-5 percent is the extra money that, the shopkeepers claim, is paid to bank or the credit card provider. However, the banks and credit card company clearly state that this money is not supposed to be paid by the customer if customer is purchasing at MRP.

The practice of demanding extra 2-5% in case of credit card pyament is more rife among small shopkeepers, and seldom I have seen known retail chains or big shops asking for it. So,  last week when I went to buy a rather pricey electronic item from Gizmos shop at Saket CityWalk, New Delhi, the request for extra 2% payment came as surprise. The shopkeeper insisted on not only getting 2% extra but also getting the extra payment in cash for which there was no bill. I insisted on getting a receipt for the extra charge but the shopkeeper summarily refused. This clearly smacked off some wrongdoings. First, the shopkeeper was charging extra money which was illegal and second he was receiving payment in black money by not providing receipts.

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The shopping experience turned sour when he also insisted us on buying the mandatory accessories with the electronic item without which they refused to sell the product. Since, we had already made up our mind and the item was not available with other shopkeepers, we bought it paying 2% extra and with some accessories that we did not intend to buy.  I am not sure whether the parent company Audio Voice is cognizant of these practices or it is the shopkeeper making some extra money, but I am not visiting Gizmos store again.

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Horrible Fast Track Chennai

I have been using Fast Track Chennai for almost a couple of years now, and I realized that I really need a better alternative in Chennai. I have missed my flight twice, reached late at least ten times and lost my temper almost every second time I call them to order for a cab. I can cite numerous reasons (yes, my list is surprisingly long!) but here are three major ones:

1. Their drivers are ill-trained and they never understand their responsibility of informing the customer in case their vehicle is broken or they are running late (which they almost always do if you need them on time.).

2. The call-center employees never understand your requirements and your timing and pick-up address are prone to be goofed up most of the time. Often then tend to attend more than one customer at the same time. Yes, you can easily make this thing from the phone call.

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3. I know that it is my stupidity/lethargy/idleness that I did not learn Tamil and I understand that the drivers are not supposed to be fluent in Hindi or English (though most of the time Fast Track people assure me that they are sending driver who understands English), but I do expect the drivers to know the routes in the city. I am not able to count how many times I have got delayed or paid twice the normal fare due this reason.

There are a number of other operators whom I have started trying instead of Fast Track. Anyone knows a better option in Chennai?

Ranchi Trip

Last month, I visited  Ranchi for a couple of days almost after

the water tank on hilltop
the water tank on hilltop

23 years. I was so excited to visit that place, to see my school and go to those places which were slowly getting eroded from my memory. But the menace of ‘Naxalism’ completely ruined my enthusiasm. We could not go to remote villages and surely not in a ‘car or jeep’ as they generated extra attention, and one local naxalite expert told me that in election time Naxals do not think before bashing up any outside face. Their policy.. first bash them up.. we will see the other issues later.

Though Ranchi city seemed quite peaceful, I ventured out on bike to find my childhood school and all I knew about that school was that there used to be a small hillock near the school and at top of that hillock there was a water tank. I called my mother to get more info, she told that the school was near a Hanuman temple in Harmu. We drove in and around Harmu and were able to locate almost 4-5 temples but the hillock was nowhere. That means there was no way to get to my school. New constructions and other developments made this place completely different from the image of this place I had in mind.
So I came back to the guesthouse, disappointed and full of thoughts. Naxalism, Development, Urbanization etc.. My plan to take a road trip to Daltonganj, Garhwa and Ranka stood canceled. I wanted to use this weekend for that. It would have been an experience to visit these places but the fear of Naxalites and poor connectivity to these places have left me with no options. Probably I will dare again, after the elections when the Naxal activities subside.

my school :)
my school 🙂

Next day I was busy in my official chores and I had given up on finding my old school in the concrete jungle, but a local resident and employee of the host organization here in Ranchi, blessed me with his local knowledge. He knew the location of the hillock which has a water tank on top. I realized I can still see my school and I ventured out. He took me near the hillock, in front of a very big nice looking school, St. Francis High School. He was sure that this was my school, but I knew I was not that lucky to have studied in schools like these. But I could still see the hillock and the water tank on top, our favorite place for having lunch around 23 years ago.
I wanted to go there again on the hilltop and somehow I found a way to go there and on the way, I could see an almost dilapidated building and here I was. That’s my school, I shouted. Rajkiya Krit Madhya Vidyalaya, Harmu – 12. Suddenly those faint memories became vivid. I could remember the place I used to stand for morning prayers and the school gate and numerous related incidents. School gate was a common factor in most of the incidents. I jumped the wall to go inside the campus (once inside I realized there were numerous ways, and surely not intended ones, to get inside the campus, the surrounding wall was broken at many places) and saw the menu of the food served under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan painted on the wall.
I pulled out my cam, wanted to capture these moments of relived, realized nostalgia. Great feeling to be there. If I look back on my school days, the biggest complaint (apart from not being able to study in any ‘decent’ schools) is my father’s job forcing frequent school changes for me, that means I could never have those childhood friends. All gone. No trails.

Chennai 3.0

Chennai celebrates its 369th birthday. Though my professional commitments and other constraints  deprived me from participating in the celebrations, I did get a chance to attend ‘Chennai 3.0’ organized by Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). The theme of the conference was “Chennai – Evolution Today, Revolution Tomorrow”.  And, I have no doubts seeing the growth plans and the people behind the evolution, revolution is bound to happen.  CII did a great job to get industrialists, city planners, bureaucrats and politicians all on the same platform and talk different aspects of Chennai today and tomorrow.

While everybody presented their vision for Chennai and how ‘the Detroit of India’ should move forward to become the world class city, it was intriguing (and one of the speakers highlighted this) that none of the Chennai based industries/business houses came forward to sponsor the event. I was bemused seeing most of the speakers talking about inclusive growth and sustainable growth but they did not highlight any of concrete plans to give any indication how they are going to achieve that. Though we had detailed plans on how to solve problems of Car Parking, Shopping Space, satellite cities and how to make Chennai Airport a world class airport, but somehow problems of commoners living in Chennai took back seat like the commoners present in the TAJ Conference Hall. But probably this was not primarily intended to dwell upon that, it was more of a celebrations of achievements of this city and setting up the context for future growth and expansion.

My personal experience with Chennai has been really wonderful, earlier I was a bit hesitant to think Chennai as the preferred workplace, but after my fieldwork in Tamilnadu and now more than one year in Chennai I love the city.