The importance of earphones for emergency use when cafe working

Mostly I can filter out the background noise in cafe’s so have no need for headphones. I don’t always want to cut myself off completely, I want to be able to hear the phone ringing or people trying to get my attention. But background noise is usually fine, I can filter it out and concentrate. However, sometimes a particular voice will cut through the cacophony, and whatever you do to try to ignore it you find yourself tuning in and listening to every word! In those situations you need earphones – they can make the difference between a wasted trip and a successful one!


Solar Gorilla on the roof

This blog has been a bit quiet recently, but contrary to what the title suggests, I haven’t been hiding in my shed. In fact since returning from our European road trip last summer I spent a while working from home, then on-site for Aardman for a few weeks, then I started renting some desk space in town. The desk space didn’t really work out – just like the previous time I did this, I found myself using it less and less, and eventually decided it wasn’t worth the expense. So now i’m back to home working, or more specifically right now, from the dining room table of a house we are house-sitting in Ireland!

The reason for the “shedworking” title is that I was given a book for my birthday “Shedworking – The alternative workplace revolution” by Alex Johnson, which showcases some lovely shed conversions for people to create a dedicated workspace in their garden. This is something i’ve considered doing, being the owner of a reasonable size breeze-block outbuilding in the garden of our victorian terraced house. While I was considering whether to give up the rented desk, it occurred to me that the money saved on rent could fund the work needed to create a work space.

I would need to replace the roof – currently blue asbestos, which although apparently safe if undisturbed, leaks a bit and i’d rather get rid of it. I’s also need to divide off some space to keep as a shed – storing bikes, tools etc. and create a well insulated space with some form of heating (a wood burner would be nice, but I suspect i’d need something else for shorter bursts of heat first thing on a winter morning!). Other than that, it would be very minimalist – I would need a chair and desk, from where I could work on my laptop. The wifi from the house reaches the garden so hopefully into the shed, and I could always use a range extender if necessary. Although I would likely gets mains electricity installed, I would like to keep this space “off the grid” – maybe I could invest in the big leisure batteries and larger solar panels that I would need to keep laptop/ monitor/ lights going. A trial run for whatever I would eventually fit into a camper van that i’m still fantasising about.

So walking a few metres down the garden to a shed could hardly be described as “on the road”, but it is very much in keeping with the theme of not working in an office, working with a minimal set of tools that can be packed into a bag and taken elsewhere at the drop of a hat.

Trying out working standing up

If any of my neighbours are spying on me today they might be wondering why I am working standing up by the window with my laptop on a chest of drawers. The reason is this article: “Sitting is killing you” (linked removed at content authors request, due to google backlink issues). I’m not getting all tin-foil hat after reading this, but I have been wondering what to do about my home “office” set up recently, and have been concerned about the amount of time I spend sitting (well slouching, if we are being honest) at a desk. I need to find the most comfortable height and see how I get on with it, so this blog post is being written standing up as the first of many experiments!

archived comments

Brilliant! I’ve started standing to work at home – it was a pain in the arse getting the desk to the right height (lots of piles of books) but well worth it. It’s hard work at first, and you still need to sit down occasionally, but I find it helps me focus better.

Nick Morgan 2011-05-19 10:05:02

There’s a long running thread on twitter from @andydiggle about moving away from sedentary work. His solution: the IKEA hack standing desk!

I know the whole subject can seem quite trivial but to anyone who is a) deskbound at work and b) needs to focus for extended lengths of time in the same position I think it is pretty important to be able to move around. My experience is that sitting at a desk seems to make me want to stay sat down and I end up collecting all my desk oriented activities together. Anything that can force me to move around has got to be a win.

Robin Layfeild 2011-05-27 10:04:28

New macbook air got me all excited – the ultimate ultraportable workstation?

macbook air

I’m having to write this blog post as a brain dump – those annoying boffins at apple have got my brain in a recursive loop because they’ve released an 11 inch macbook air. I’ve always loved the idea of a very portable workstation, i’m happy to compromise on a bit of power for something small and light that I can work on anywhere.

By work, I mean web development – switching between highly visual work on the appearance of web sites, including using the very bloated and power hungry photoshop, to writing code and administrating databases. Although most of the time I work at a desk, with my laptop attached to an external full size monitor and keyboard, I also often work on site for design agencies, with or without an external monitor and I like to work from cafe’s or wherever I happen to be.Therefore my brain is looping around like this:-

I used to have a 12 inch powerbook, it was great – it was small, looked good, had decent battery life (for 5 years ago) but was a little bit underpowered and if I was to do a full days work on it without an external monitor to hook it up to it got tedious, as it only had a resolution of 1024 x 768

When I replaced it with a 2006 plastic macbook, that little bit of extra screen estate was enough to make it a viable machine to work on all day if I couldn’t hook up to a monitor. I bought another one a couple of years later – the original one would only take 2GB’s of RAM, so struggled with Virtual Machines, I got the second one second-hand and I now therefore have a spare, which is mostly used by my wife. They have been great and i’ll hopefully get another year or two out of them.

I have bought two netbooks in the past – a 9 inch acer aspire (which I sold to a friend while drunk), and then just before my road trip this year I bought a ten inch dell inspiron. Although capable, neither of them are pleasant to work on at all. They make good “emergency” machines, but the keyboard feels cramped, and the trackpads have both been virtually unusable. The vertical screen estate is just too small, so using forms on websites and web applications is fiddly, so even blogging with wordpress isn’t pleasant. The dell has really good battery life however, and it is small and it was less that 200 quid, so it still makes a great second emergency laptop.

Whatever I buy needs to be able to run my full development toolkit- apache webserver, mysql and postgres databases, photoshop, code editor, virtual machines. That rules out an iPad, which doesn’t run osx (or windows/linux for that matter).

So onto the macbook air – the first thing is that it looks gorgeous – like a slimmed down 12 inch powerbook – ridiculously thin and light. It seems very futuristic, but functional. at £849 in VAT for the base model it is therefore the cheapest macbook available – same price as the base model plastic macbook. I said cheapest not “cheap”, by the way!

The 11 inch macbook air has a full size keyboard and a decent trackpad, therefore it should be ok to type on, and navigate intricate interfaces. It has a native resolution of 1366 by 768 so it has more horizontal pixels than my macbook, but slightly less vertical pixels. Only slightly though – I guess i’ll be going to the apple store to see how that feels in use.

It has “up to five hours” of battery life – I think this will mean a couple of hours in reality, with the type of work I do – not brilliant. I think the efficiency and lower capacity battery means that I might have more success charging or powering it with my solar/ battery gadgets though.

The base model only has a 64GB “disk” – that would be pretty easy to fill, even if I have my music/ videos/ vm’s on an external disk. I guess an external disk would be key to this – it couldn’t be my “main machine”, but I would want it to be the machine I pick up and take with me most of the time, so i’d need to adopt a way of working that means I could quickly pick up where I leave off when I switch machines. The price starts to creep up if I choose the upgraded options – more ram, higher capacity disk etc.

By the way, i’ve only mentioned the 11 inch version. There is also a 13 inch version which is higher spec, but also higher price and if I wasn’t going to have the really small one, i’d rather get a high spec 13 inch macbook pro, for that budget. At least i’ve managed to rule that one out.. I think.

So the conclusion is that it would be a stupidly expensive indulgence for something that couldn’t be my main machine. I should be ashamed of myself – i’m not an apple fanboy (honest!). I’ve never queued inside an apple store for anything, let alone outside. I just don’t need one. It would be stupid to spend my hard earned cash on something so unnecessary.

I tell myself all of this each time I get to this point of the thought loop… but then I look at the pictures and video, tell myself that £849 minus VAT (I can reclaim through my limited company) isn’t *that* much for such an amazing gadget.. and i’m back to the start. I wonder if it’s possible to put a restraining order on myself preventing myself from going within 200 metres of the apple store…

Six weeks on the road – lessons learned

toy beetle on map of france

I’ve just returned from a six week working holiday, touring france (and a bit of spain) with my wife and son, in a beetle, living in a tent and working as a freelance web developer at the same time. I thought i’d write up some of the lessons learned, both about camping/ touring and working.



Without a doubt the thing we missed most was some kind of fridge. We had a cool bag and some ice blocks (not all campsites will let you use their freezer, plus you need to remember to swap them frequently when you are allowed), and also tried using a bucket of water – both failed miserably. Various options are available for powered coolboxes, ranging from 12 volt only, 12v volt + mains and electric/ gas combos. This is something i’ll be looking into – expect a lengthy post on this some time in the future!

Quechua pop-up tents

The Quechua tents were brilliant – we had one Quechua base “full” and two pop-up tents which docked up to the base as bedrooms. All survived storms and we loved being able to pitch them and pack them down in minutes. Having owned various tents over the years, I can’t imagine going back to a tent with poles – it’s just not worth the hassle when touring.

Unfortunately the zip on our 3-man tent is now broken. This is fine when it is docked up to the base, as the inner door still works, but it is now fairly useless as a standalone tent. However, I remain impressed enough with the general quality of the tent, so I’ll replace this at some point and may consider adding another base tent to use as a kitchen area or bedroom (with the optional inner).


Due to car space considerations we skimped on pillows – big mistake! Travel pillows and cushions don’t cut it for long term camping. If we had more room, i’m sure a better mattress (we had self-inflating mattresses, which are good, but i’d still wake up with a dead arm now again) would have been welcome, as would duvets instead of sleeping bags.

VW New Beetle as a touring car

Is possible – just! This car is basically just a MK4 golf with a silly/beautiful* shape and much less boot space, so it is fine on the road for long journeys (over three and a half thousand in the this case), if a little thirsty. Even though it is ten years old with 100K+ miles on the clock, the only mechanical problem we had on the trip was the air conditioning breaking, although it was already faulty I suspect. With roof bars/ bag we managed to carry a surprising amount of kit, but packing the car was a work of science. I’m investigating options to be able to carry more for future trips – trailers, tow ball mounted load carrier, big roof box – no doubt i’ll write about my findings on that at some point. The biggest plus for the car was the smiles it got when we arrived on a campsite fully laden 🙂

mobile working – kit

Solar power

My experiments with small solar panel and battery pack combos – the solargorilla/powergorilla combo and the SolarSupra showed that it is possible to charge a laptop with solar power in France during the summer, but only for occasional use. To get consistent full working days would need a more sophisticated setup – larger panels and bigger batteries. I’ll be continuing these experiments in the UK, and doing a side by side comparison of the solargorilla/powergorilla and solarsupra.

Spare batteries

As an afterthought I packed the battery from my spare macbook. This turned out to be the most useful of the “gadgets” I took with me. I’ll probably buy one or two spare batteries before my next trip, plus a standalone charger. It’s a pity the new macbooks and macbook pros don’t have a removable battery – they may have better battery life, but it is really useful to be able to carry a few spares.

Electric hookup

Most of the sites we went to had electric hookup, but not always on all of the pitches. This means that if you don’t rely on electric hookup, there is more choice if you just turn up without booking during busy times. I wanted to see if I could charge my laptop with no reliance on an electric hookup, with very limited success. Also we saved somewhere in the region of £200 by not paying for electric hookup. However, I hadn’t realised the extent to which we would miss a fridge, and even though i’ll probably buy one with the ability to run from gas, electricity is going to be the most convenient way to run it long term. I’ll be buying some electric hookup kit for the next trip, but I don’t want to rely on it to the point that I would turn down a pitch if it didn’t have electric hookup. It’s worth noting that there are two different types of electric hookup – the caravan hookup type socket, and some that are just northern european plug sockets. I’ve been told that the polarity is often wrong on these sockets, which doesn’t stop devices working, but will make surge protectors useless – and surges are common, especially during storms!

Proper leisure batteries

The Halfords powerpack I have previously referred to as a leisure battery, isn’t actually a leisure battery at all. A proper leisure battery has much higher capacity, and can be discharged to a higher level without damaging it. The main obstacle to carrying a leisure battery is our tiny car, but if I can find a small enough one, i’ll probably get one for the next trip, and leave the powerpack. My main worry about not having any type of 12 volt battery on board is for when I accidently happen to flatten my main car battery, although this didn’t happen at all on this trip, so maybe i’ll just buy a decent set of jump leads and improve my french vocabulary to include “gis a jump start mate!”, rather than lugging a battery around.

Macbook and Netbook

My main weapon of choice is a macbook. Not a macbook pro, but the older plastic one, with the removable battery. I actually have two, and they do the job. I like the fact that as they are a few years old now, i’m not as paranoid about them as I would be a brand new macbook pro. I’ve been happy using the macbook to do all kinds of different work, ranging from python and php code to photoshop. I decided to buy a netbook as a spare machine, rather than carry the second macbook as a spare. In reality I didn’t use the netbook much at all, as it is so fiddly to use, particularly the trackpad, but it was still nice to know it was there if something happened to the macbook. I think i’d do the same again, although if I got a chance I may try it as a hackintosh, to see how useable it is.

Mobile working – discipline

Scheduling work

In my last post I discussed how difficult it can be juggle work and holiday. I haven’t really quantified how much work I managed to get done over the trip, but I suspect it falls short of covering costs. I think our next trip will definitely involve an extended stay in a particular location where I do a set number of days work on a particular project, then limit working on the rest of the trip to emergencies and short maintenance jobs here and there. I think this way i’ll know in advance how much money i’m likely to earn and manage my client’s (and my family’s!) expectations better.

Working offline

This deserves a post of it’s own, but probably on my main web development blog. I spent a lot of time working disconnected from the net and this had knock-on effects for the way I work on projects. This blog is actually written on an offline text file based blogging engine I knocked up in a vw dealership while waiting for my car to be fixed a few months ago, and it turned out to be very useful, and I learned a few other lessons that I will endeavor to write about in more detail.

* delete as applicable – I think it’s the latter 🙂

Work/loaf balance

work/ loaf balance

Sometimes I get bullied and cajoled by my family and friends into doing social and exciting stuff, just as I need to do some work, or just as i’ve finished work and want to bury my face in a book/ice cream/beer (or preferably all three) – poor me, what a hard life etc. etc…

Taking an extended road trip like this depends on me working for part of the time, both in terms of keeping my existing clients happy and earning enough money to pay the bills. I’ve been experimenting with different ways of doing this.

The first few weeks revolved around my experiments with charging via solar or from the car, so I would do sprints of work when I had a full battery – which usually meant a couple of hours a day.

On longer stays on a wifi equipped campsite, when i’ve paid for a day pass on the wifi, it often works out better to take whole days in the campsite bar, plugged into the mains. I use the term “whole day” loosely – it has been rare to start before ten, and there have been frequent breaks for a dip in the pool, keep my son entertained, socialising, trips to the supermarket etc. – the usual things you might expect to do on holiday if you weren’t trying to make a living at the same time.

Other days we might be traveling, or taking a day trip, there’s not much opportunity to get any work done, albeit answering emails on my iphone.

It hasn’t always been ideal – sometimes the days, or part days where i’m trying to enjoy the holiday i’m left in “work mode”, really feeling like I should be getting on with something, other days i’m working away when I really should be going for a swim or reading a book. I’m not sure what the solution is yet, maybe it’s just getting better at switching between work and play, or maybe it’s longer work days with a stricter emphasis on work, or several days in a row on and several off.

Maybe the real solution taking a shorter road trip next time and not trying to do any work at all, but i’m enjoying this too much – how many people get the opportunity to spend this long having an adventure with their family? So i’m making the most of it – i’ll make it work somehow!

(The pop-up tent in the photo above is a Quechua Base Seconds)

One night in Spain

cabo mayor ticket

It’s seven o’clock in the evening and i’m being led on a wild goose chase round Santander in the north of Spain, by the very out-of-date “points of interest – cash dispenser” option on my satnav. I’m led to a building site, a car park and, worryingly, a cliff, before finally spotting a bank that wasn’t on the list. I park the car illegally in a spot reserved for motorbikes and run a lost tourist flip-flop sprint to the ATM to secure some cash for the evening. Camping Cabo Mayor – the campsite that we didn’t really want to stay – where i’ve left my wife and son setting up camp, informed me they only accept payment in cash, and we haven’t got food for the night either.

We’ve driven well over a hundred miles to get here from Biarritz. The whole european trip has been pretty much unplanned, but so far we’ve always phoned ahead to check availability, but after being greeted by spanish answerphone messages and total failure of online booking, we decided that with a list of campsites hastily scribbled in felt tip on a notepad the last time we had wifi, that we would chance just turning up. In the second week of August – “peak season” apparently. The first site we tried, 20 miles or so east at Noja was manic and full, the next one at Suesa we didn’t even stop to enquire, as we could see from the road it was full to bursting and it wasn’t what we looking for. We ended up at Cabo Mayor on the hills above Santander, somewhere i’ve stayed before, on the first night of my “Spanish Adventure”* 13 or so years ago.

We’ve obviously been spoilt by the campsites we’ve stayed at in France – on this site we are crammed in like battery hens, with barely room for our car and only able to put up part of our over-elaborate tent arrangement. After carefully locking all things of value out of site in the car, we take a walk up to the Cabo Mayor lighthouse and have a beer looking out over the sea. Annoyingly, it’s chilly – that’s not how I remember it. We then retire to the bar down the road from the campsite, where things are more relaxed and I get to practice some of my rusty Spanish – not very much really, but considerably better than my french.

Things were a bit different last time I was here. Back then as a young and single hippy in a beaten up van, I slept in carparks, down side streets, on beaches, in the woods and basically anywhere I thought I could stay for the night without getting moved on by the police. Back then I was also trying to earn a living as I went, but busking rather than coding – I think I am having slightly more success with the latter. Not far from where i’m standing is the spot where I first ever dared to sing in public – I played a lemonheads song to some random tourists and earned a few pesetas, leaving me on a high for days.

Back at the campsite we feel slightly marooned – there’s not even room to sit outside the tent to enjoy a drink. We don’t want to stay more than one night on this site. Without having somewhere in mind, it becomes obvious that carrying on further into spain the next day might be counter-productive for what we want to get out of this trip. We decide that we are going to make an early start the next day, back the way we came – a 280 mile trip back to our new favourite french site at La Romieu – we’ll have to save exploring Spain for the next trip, when we’ve done a bit more planning, maybe next time taking the ferry to Spain and starting the trip there. Meanwhile i’m happy knowing that back at La Romieu with wifi and a plug socket for the week I can get some work done and earn back the petrol money from our weekend detour.

*My Spanish Adventure is something that I always meant to write a novel about, but if it hasn’t been written yet, I doubt it ever will. Also, the things I thought would make interesting reading in my early 20’s, are probably less so now, but there must be at least a blog post in there!

Three days of cloud and rain = back to mains

raindrops on the tent

I had been doing really well keeping stuff charged by solar power alone in the good weather, but three days of cloud and torrential rain resulted in me borrowing a mains adapter from the campsite reception and turning the boot of my car into a charging station.

The final straw was torrential rain yesterday afternoon leaving us huddled in the quechua base tent watching a film on the laptop. A nearly flat macbook was topped up with a half charged powergorilla (the result of 2 days solar charging) and we just made it all the way through Tom Hank’s “Big” with a few minutes battery time left.

It was only sheer luck that we happened to be on a pitch with mains hook up – most of the sites have more choice if you don’t need electric, but we ended up on a pitch with mains. I need to get hold of a proper electric hook up lead – I wasn’t sure if UK/Europe mains hook up leads were the same or not, and the leads I looked at in the UK were very bulky, so I decided against it.

I’ve just returned from the campsite bar after unsuccessfully trying to use the campsite wifi – it keeps going offline because of power surges apparently. I guess I should be getting a lead with a surge protector built in. Meanwhile we sit out the storm with a medley of films, and frequent dashes to the car boot charging station to swap chargers over.

On a brighter note, the Quechua tents are holding up a treat in the rain 🙂