A technical admission


The title of this post reads more like a ticket to a trade show or industry event. But it’s something I’ve likely long since realised, but am only grappling with the implications now. Specifically, I’ve been mulling on that 2003 VHS–Betamax article I wrote about yesterday, and realised I had the opposite problem that Jack Schofield described.

I was always one of those people who had to obsessively research everything I bought. I know this, because I still am. I’d pour over Sim Lim Square and Funan Centre computer part price lists as a kid trying desperately to ink out any conceivable advantage in performance I could find for the precious little money I had. That was a long sentence. Even when I came second in a writing contest and suddenly had $800 to throw around, I was dithering whether to go with RAMBUS or a Pentium Pro.

(I might be getting my timelines mixed up a bit, but you get the point. And what a relief I didn’t choose RAMBUS. I don’t even like regular buses).

This justification morphed as I got older from thriftiness and efficiency to one of professionalism. I was a computing enthusiast, with dreams of becoming a developer and systems engineer, so of course I needed the best equipment. These delusions of grandeur also began to seep into other areas like photography, then as I got older even lightbulbs, coffee machines, and home audio gear.

My teenage self would hotly deny the charge, but my perceived self-image was also becoming increasingly tied to the equipment I used. Nothing good ever comes from this.

That’s not to say I didn’t have ample opportunities to see through this Potemkin Mind I’d erected. I inherited my dad’s old Pentium II ThinkPad 600E when he got a new work machine. I’d never had a laptop before, and this one seemed massive, clunky, slow, and unreasonably fun to use. It had its own distinctive tactile experience, and beeps, and an LCD.

I’ve had new Macs and DIY machines since, but somehow they’ve always had a second-hand ThinkPad sidekick. I have fond memories of my X40 and X61s; both were less powerful, had lower resolution screens, poorer colour reproduction, and comically short battery lives compared to my Macs, but I often ended up taking them to coffee shops instead. With FreeBSD and Linux, of course.

But still I stubbornly clung to the fallacy that I needed the best, or at least the best I could afford, because anything less would be a tacit admission that my work and, by extension myself, weren’t worth it. And I was, damn it! In perhaps the most absurd case, I got a PowerMac G5 and external display to take overseas to study, instead of a laptop. And half the time it was running NetBSD, not even Mac OS X!

I held onto this view for years, at my own expense. I bought heavy DSLRs because, of course, prosumers want interchangable lenses for every situation in which they’d find themselves. No matter that I had basically the same prime welded to it the entire time, and that I barely took fifty photos a month at best. No point rocking up to a nature reserve or an anime convention with a pocket camera. The upshot of which meant I used my camera on my phone more, and left the SLR in a bag at home.

Which, speaking of that, also extended to esoteric things like anime figures. I never considered getting so-called game prize figures on account of them being poor quality, but I was given one by a close friend and she’s one of my favourites. She even has a few friends now, some of which are there because I sold scale figs I liked less to make space.

The list keeps growing the more I think about this. Kitchen utensils. Watches. Fitness garb including swimsuits and runners. 4K video, lossless audio, and headphones. And with a lady living with me now, these extended to her.

It wasn’t till I started my decluttering binge a few years ago that I finally acknowledged my own priorities, which surprisingly to me often had nothing to do with the performance of the machine or other metrics we’re supposed to care about. My primary machine is an ageing MacBook Pro docked to an external display so I don’t have to endure its ghoulish keyboard. My sidekick laptop is a second-hand ThinkPad. My home server is a bargain basement HP Microserver with a Xeon for ECC and VT-x, but a low TDP to keep it cool. And my current camera, after tricking myself for years that I needed an interchangable SLR or at least a M4/3 system, is a fixed lens Ricoh GR III compact.

In the most extreme case, my Pentium MMX tower I built from those aforementioned price lists is now my main home gaming machine given my rediscovery of DOS. And yes, she dual-boots NetBSD!

I apologise if this comes across at all condescendingly, or if you feel as though I’m belittling your own interests or how you spend money. It may very well be that you do need as much processing power as you can throw money at, or the best camera, or that you derive genuine joy and happiness from using them, or productivity for your job. But I’ve been surprised, and dare I say it a little relieved, that I can get by and be perfectly happy with less. Which given Clara’s and my penchant for tiny apartments in convenient inner city locations, we may need to have got used to anyway.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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