Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Through the Magic Window

The past two weeks, my dear reader, have been even more complex than usual.  Besides a whole pack of paper deadlines (more on that in another post), we drove an infant for 2000 kilometers, I am working remotely for a few weeks, and even had to fly back to Boston for a couple of days of meetings.  Not that any of this is any excuse for neglecting you, which I shall now attempt to correct.

What I want to talk about right at the moment is my solution for working remotely.  I got the idea from reading another scientist's blog quite some time ago---I wish I could remember who, but I have no recollection.  That mysterious but wise blogger talked about going on sabbatical and staying in touch with their lab through the simple expedient of a computer set up in the middle of the lab, with an open Skype connection.  Anybody who wanted to talk to the professor could then just stop by the computer and they'd be right there.

I really liked this idea.  I've been a big fan of video Skype for meetings for quite a while: I find that being able to see the people I'm talking to makes a huge difference in my ability to communicate and, especially, to track well on what they're saying.  This is especially important when you're talking with multiple people at once---when I'm on a telephone conference, unless I know all the other people's voices really well, I'm likely to get confused as to who exactly is saying what.  I'm especially grateful for Skype when talking with European collaborators, who it's difficult and expensive to even call on a conventional phone (yes, I know there are other solutions besides Skype, like Google hangouts, but I'm a creature of habit when it comes to brand loyalty and other relatively unimportant distinctions).

This is another of those "living in the future" moments I get, from time to time.  Remember when video phones were a staple of science fiction?  Now it's easier for me to use video than not, half the time.  And the fact that it's "living in the future" dates me, I'm sure---my seven-month-old daughter already finds her parents' cell phones mystifying because she can't see the person talking to her.

So anyway, when contemplating working remotely, I decided that the best thing to do was to set my (large) desktop monitor in Cambridge up as the "Magic Window" connecting me to my office.  On my end, I've got my laptop, which is where I do all my work, and a loaner machine that sits connected to the office whenever I'm working and not off in meetings or whatnot.  My Cambridge machine is logged in as a special-purpose Skype user, which automatically boots Skype and sets it up to answer my incoming call automatically.  And for meetings, I bought myself an iPad, christened it "Meeting Jake" and got one of those covers that can prop it up on a table.

I figured this idea was worth a shot, and so far, it's working like a charm.  With a good ethernet link to a high-bandwidth connection on either side, Skype is crisp and clean and runs for hours with nary a hitch.  Except when a police car goes zooming by my Cambridge office and the siren makes me jump. The iPad isn't quite so good, but I had lunch with folks today, and it worked well enough.

My only complaint?  It's much harder to go drop in on people.  My normal day in the office involves a lot of walking around---not necessarily going to anywhere in particular, but just stretching my legs, checking whether somebody I want to talk to is around, etc.  I hear there are telepresence robots that one can get these days, but I also hear they're really not up to the job yet.  

So: so far so good, and hopefully it will continue to work well for the next couple of weeks while I continue to be working remotely.  Also, so far so good on long drives with infants: as long as there was one parent in the back seat with her, Harriet was fine---in fact, probably happier overall than when her parents are distracted by the cares and requirements of an ordinary day.  An so, for your moment of baby zen, what does a seven-month-old infant look like in the middle of a long cross-country drive?

Harriet, delightedly playing on her car seat at a rest stop. 

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