The Laptop Backpack of Doom

When some friends and I were out-geeking each other by comparing backpack/briefcase contents, I realized how out-of-control my pack had gotten. After several rounds of “Oh, this is neat. I’d better put it in the pack in case I need it someday,” I had a very heavy pack.

Ironically, I’d switched from a laptop briefcase to a backpack after a friend recommended packs for posture. His argument was that carrying a heavy laptop briefcase weighed down whichever shoulder you slung the strap over, and was bad for your spine. Packs spread the weight. But now I had a pack that caused me to lean forward to stay centered, and that wacked people if I turned too quickly in a crowd.

Time to dump it out and put it on a diet. Here’s what was in the pack:

Across the top:

  • Dell 600m laptop and power brick, Kennsington USB mouse.
  • Notebook (for planning) and an article to read.
  • Two back issues of Linux Journal.
  • A Birthday card from my wife, and boarding passes from my last trip.

Next layer down:

  • A Penguin Cafe Orchestra CD and a blank CD-R. (You’ve probably heard Penguin Cafe Orchestra music before, but I’ll bet you can’t place where. It’s that kind of music.)
  • Business card case. (I should check to make sure the cards are current.)
  • Two O’Reilly pocket reference books, one on Python, the other on CSS, and Dan Cederholm’s excellent Web Standards Solutions.
  • Another notebook (for technical stuff, almost filled).
  • A Cyalume light stick (in case I’m caught in a power failure in the basement of a building), throat losenges, and three power bars (so that I don’t starve when caught in the basement of the building).

Next layer down:

  • Envelopes and stamps (in case there’s no network access for email when I’m caught in the basement of that building).
  • An assortment of 5×7, 4×6, and 3×5 cards, blank and ruled, in various colors. (The thought of being stuck somewhere without stuff to take notes on gives me the willies.)
  • A camera lense cleaning cloth (for cleaning the screen on the laptop and digital camera).
  • A quadrille-ruled Moleskin notebook to take over for the previous technical notebook, which will fill up any day now.
  • Salmon Jerky, from Trader Joe’s. (Protein for people who don’t eat land meat.)

Bottom row:

  • First clump: 5×7, 4×5, and 3×5 cards with notes on them. Somehow they’d escaped into the bottom of the pack.
  • Next clump: Starbucks card, card key for work, two packs of breath mints, a tube of skin cream, and a lanyard from a conference.
  • Next clump: Earphones for the laptop, small tripod for the camera, two packs of earplugs, a pack of bandaides, and a camera case.
  • Next clump: A bag with some dead recharchable batteries, a plastic container with charged batteries, a USB cable with a secure digital card reader, a 64Mb USB key frob, and a little black fake leather thing with more memory cards in it for the camera.
  • Final clump: A bag of pens and small office supplies (clips, post-its, small flashlight, more stamps, some allergy pills, tie-down straps), another USB cable, a 5′ CAT5 (in case that dark basement has an ethernet tap), 8′ of phone cable, the USB adaptor for the camera, a 2-way power extender (for sharing the single public power outlet that many airports seem to have).

Not shown:

  • The Nikon Coolpix 3200 used to take the picture.
  • A half bottle of water that’d gotten buried in the pack.

Care to guess how much this all weighed before I put the pack on a diet?

I cut about a third of the weight of the bag, mostly by putting the travel-related stuff into a box. Losing more weight would mean getting a lighter laptop, and that’s not in the budget for a while. I may switch back to a briefcase, reserving the laptop bag for travel.

The meta-problem is that I was trying to be prepared for too much at once. And I wasn’t getting unprepared (i.e., filing papers and notes) for stuff that’d already happened. Neither had been a big problem when I’d been using a soft briefcase, since it couldn’t hold as much, and there weren’t as many places for things to hide.

Early into the cleanup

Here’s my study early into the cleanup effort, after the first wave of boxes had been dealt with.

Observant parents will note that the 4×6 card holder on the monitor is indeed a headless “Ken” doll. Funny how that seems to happen to Ken whenever the Barbies get together.

Shortly after these pictures were taken, I bought a dozen transparent plastic tubs from the local Container Store. Excellent for sorting things and then stacking the result in a visible way.

The slow return of the Visible Reminder

It took moving to wake me up to how much I depended on visible reminders to keep projects going.

A little over a year ago, on short notice, we packed up our old place and moved. A year plus later, the garage at the new place is still waist deep in boxes, including boxes holding most of my library and large parts of my old study. The new study is, on paper, a bit larger than the old one, and the light is better, but the room has less space for bookshelves, and half as much usable surface area. Piles started growing on the floor right away.

At about the same time as the move, my old briefcase broke. A friend convinced me that a computer backpack was a better choice, both for the laptop and for my back. The laptop pack I bought is sturdy, but it’s a black hole. It swallows stuff. Where the old briefcase could be flipped open to reveal its contents, the backpack has zippers that conceal small caves. You need a flashlight to find things. I emptied it a while ago and found a half bottle of water that’d been in there, unmissed, for weeks.

Meanwhile, several projects that I’d been juggling had slowly ground to near standstills. After a few frustrating months of beating my head against the wall, I realized that what was missing were visible reminders of the projects: TO DO lists, drawings, notes, articles, and so on. They used to be layed out where I could see them. Now they were piled in stacks on the floor or hidden in some rabbit hole in my backpack. Reminders kept going off into hiding, getting buried by the other things that were competing for surface space. With enough stuff competing for my attention, I wasn’t noticing how many TO DOs were going missing until one would turn up while I was digging for something else.


Getting projects back on track has meant getting control of the space I now have. That’s meant sorting through piles, so that I could move the desk away from the wall long enough to put up shelves. It’s meant getting rid of some older, space hungry tower computers in favor of newer, smaller ones; swapping out an old 19″ monitor for a 17″ flat panel (which saved a surprising amount of desk space); and getting the computers and printers onto a single rack to control their tendency to sprawl. A magnetic board, in line-of-sight as I type this, now holds TO DO lists on 3×5 cards. In sight is good. Being in sight trumps being in a pile.

I’m probably halfway into the cleanup, and things are finally looking up.

There are still some tough decisions ahead. One is the desk, which has been a faithful, well, desk for the past 20 years. But its design dates back to the early of personal computers, and the post-college Danish teak construction is starting to peel and splinter. Some day soon I’ll drink toast to the old desk, then head to Ikea for a replacement.

One surprise in all of this is how well I’ve survived with my technical library in boxes. A decent network connection, Google, and an O’Reilly Safari Account have covered most of the need that the paper books used to serve. Not all, but most.

Those Dreaded Rebates

I’m 7 for 8 on getting rebate checks for computer gear purchased this year, though the last arrived well past the “allow 6-8 weeks” mark. Blind luck, or just adequate paperwork skills? Friends’ experiences suggests both. Companies win on rebates by betting that customers won’t bother, or will lose paperwork or forget to jump through all of the required hoops if they do bother. The one I missed was because I’d thrown away the bubble pack before reading the rebate instructions.

Within the past year, most of my home computing stack, including networking gear and a UPS, has been replaced with stuff bought on sale, and those sales always seem to involve rebates. As in many things, knowing what you want and having the luxury of being patient can pay off.

Fighting back chaos in my study

One often-missed final step in any home rewiring project is to take a shower. Moving my desk to rewire the network and correct some power problems kicked up a lot of dust. My sinuses quickly started to go downhill. I should have vacuumed when the desk was pulled back, but it was late, and my daughter was asleep in the next room. Next time.

Taming the tangle under the desk is one of many tasks along the road to getting my study into working order. To keep crap from building up on my desk, I was planning on putting up shelves over the desk (more surface area for making off-desk piles). Then I made the mistake of noticing that the space in back of the study door, which opens inward, was slightly deeper than the shelves I was about to install. By putting up additional shelves on the wall next to the door, I could make 3 times as many piles, and hide them by leaving the door open. Oh yeah. So, back to Ikea, only to discover that they had more shelves in stock, but were out mounting brackets until next week.

So we leave this day with power and network rewired (and the right boxes plugged into UPS‘s), and two of six shelves installed. On the plan for tomorrow is to install Ubuntu Linux on the new Pundit-based computer I just put together to replace an old Windows 98 tower PC that hasn’t been booted since we moved.