1. At Home in The Cube: Guest Post from Julio Ojeda-Zapata

    The following is a guest post from my friend Julio Ojeda-Zapata. He is a technology writer for The Saint Paul Pioneer Press (my hometown paper), geek, and all around great guy. You may also know him from his appearances on This Week in Tech.

    I think there are many out there who struggle to find the same control over their workplace computing environment as they do their home. For most, there is less choice at work over the tools you are given to use. As someone who works for themselves, I wanted to have someone speak to this quandary and tell their story. Thankfully, Julio was happy to step up to the podium.

    My cubicle at work made me uneasy for years, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. This year, it dawned on me what had bothered me for so long — It was my computer stand.

    You probably know the kind. It’s an adjustable metal apparatus with dual surfaces, one for a PC and monitor, the other for the keyboard and mouse. The surfaces slide backwards and forwards with a yank or a shove, as well as upwards and downwards via a rubber-sheathed metal crank.

    My workplace has dozens of the stands, positioned alongside cubicle desks. My co-workers toil on the stands without complaint. In a bit of an epiphany, though, my long-suppressed hatred for these Rube Goldberg contraptions bubbled to the surface — and I knew I had to be rid of mine.

    To grasp why this stand bothered me so much, you need to know how I work in my home office.

    I have the simplest of desks, consisting of a sturdy rubberwood table my wife and I picked up at Pier One Imports for a pittance when we were newlyweds. It was our cozy dining-room table for a long time, until we bought something larger and more appropriate for entertaining our friends.

    Then it became my workstation. It was too tall for typing, but my wife — who, unlike yours truly, can be trusted with power tools — fixed this by taking inches off the legs and reattaching them.

    Thus transformed, the table became a single, broad work surface for a succession of all-in-one Macs, with plenty of room to spare for peripherals and the printouts I fan out when I am writing.

    The table is typing and mousing heaven, with an obscenely ample area for my optical rodent to roam unimpeded, and curved edges that cause no irritation to my underarms and wrists during my marathon work sessions.

    Commercial computer tables don’t measure up. These range from cheapo OfficeMax versions with ridiculous slide-out keyboard trays, to hyper-expensive variations from the likes of Anthro and Biomorph. Sure, the latter are elegant and ergonomic — even electrically powered, in some higher-end cases, for raising and lowering with push-button ease — but I’m not about to spend hundreds or thousands for such Lexus-like furniture.

    My rubberwood desk adheres to the Minimal Mac ideal: It does its duty with absolute simplicity, maximum efficiency, minimal cost, extreme elegance and complete comfort.

    My PC stand at work offends me in many so ways. The faux-wood typing surface is barely wide enough for the keyboard, with little extra room for a mouse. Its legs are enamel-painted metallic tubes ending in ugly, jagged-edged openings; the rubber covers intended to camouflage this are always missing. So is that absurd hand crank, forcing me to go in a frantic hunt for a substitute.

    A couple of months ago, I reached my breaking point and had the stand banished. I needed no replacement brought in, as it turned out. I already had one: my cubicle’s desk.

    This surface was too tall for comfortable computing, but I knew it could be lowered to precisely the right height. I’m sure millions of cubicles around the world have the same flexibility.

    With my stand gone and my desk adjusted, I sighed in relief as I rolled my computer chair up to the ultrawide typing station and got busy (on a Mac, of course). This felt just like my rubberwood table back home. All the mechanical complexity was gone; a single, exquisitely positioned work surface remained. I like my job, and this allowed me to like doing it.

    My new computer setup, though, made me something of an office oddball. Visitors to my cubicle would become flustered as they sensed something amiss — it took them a second or two to see that the PC stand was gone. No one at my office, to my knowledge, has ever done such a thing.

    But I’ll never go back. This is what freedom feels like.

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