Tale of a Temporary Telecommuter

Reflections on the pros and cons of working from home

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work for a company whose workforce is distributed. That is, a company whose employees work from home (or other office space) and use the internet to do their work and communicate with their colleagues.

Most of the time, the company I work for is staffed by on-site workers. But a recent construction project at our main campus forced a large number of us to work from remote locations. Thus, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience the life of a telecommuter for two weeks.

There were a lot of things that I loved about telecommuting. There were a few unexpected drawbacks as well. Overall, it’s an experience that I would love to repeat, and get to know better.

The Pros

  1. I saved time and money by not driving round-trip to the mother ship. My commute normally takes about a half an hour, so I saved an hour per day. That adds up to 260 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 6 1/2 work weeks, or vacation weeks, depending on how you look at it. Also, it meant one less car on the road causing traffic and polluting the air.
  2. Better mental health. I slept an hour later on the days that I telecommuted. This, combined with the fact that I didn’t experience the stress of the morning commute, meant that I was happier and gave my freshest mental energy to my work.
  3. Better physical health. The natural light in my home office was a nice alternative to the fluorescent fixtures that illuminate the cubicle farm. I worked with my windows open, so I breathed a lot of fresh air. I was not tempted by the array of fattening snacks that well-meaning coworkers frequently leave out in common spaces. I did not breathe photocopier fumes, nor was I subjected to my coworkers’ colognes and fast-food smells.
  4. Silence. I loved that there were no distractions caused by people or machines. No beeping sounds, ringtones, email sounds, or text message sounds. No printer or shredder sounds. No incessant mouse clicks or clackity keyboard sounds. No fantasy football discussions or impromptu meetings taking place just outside my cubicle walls. I imagine that telecommuting employees with children, pets, or stay-at-home partners run the risk of being equally distracted by those influences. But I was completely alone, and I loved it. At one point my back yard was visited by a rafter of wild turkeys, but this provided a welcome afternoon break.
  5. The flow of work felt more natural. It seemed that my efforts were more task-based than time-based. The usual flow is: rush to get to work, work two hours, take a break, work two hours, eat lunch, work two hours, take a walk, work two hours, spend half an hour driving home. Repeat five times, then take two days off. Working from home feels more like: check messages, plan the day’s agenda, make some coffee, begin the first task, work until that task is finished, take a stretch break, begin the next task, respond to a request from a colleague, jog around the back yard for a few minutes, pick some chard from the garden, work some more, etc. The tasks seemed to unfold more organically throughout the day.
  6. I was every bit as available from home as I normally am in the office. In addition to my front-end web development responsibilities, there is a customer service aspect to my job, which I love. People have web- or design-related needs that they often don’t realize until the last minute. They call or email me for help. I solve the problem. They are grateful. I feel needed. It’s tremendously satisfying. Thanks to the work of the company’s IT department, there were systems in place that allowed me to do my job seamlessly from my remote location. I forwarded my office phone number to my home phone, and I could access all the internal resources I needed over a secure VPN connection.
  7. I was productive. I won’t claim that I was more productive than usual, but I would go so far as to say that I was equally productive. I attribute this to being happier, healthier, and less distracted, as noted above.
  8. I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed working in my pajamas and slippers.

The Cons

  1. I missed many of my coworkers. Even the ones who cause some of the aforementioned distractions. I am fortunate to work with great people, and for better or worse, we are like a big family. As effective a communication medium as the web is, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, with all the nuance and body language it provides. But I think that a meet-up once every week or two would suffice.
  2. I missed riding my motorbike. In the winter when it’s snowing, and when school is in session and traffic is dense, the commute is stressful. But in the summer when the weather is nice, I love to ride my motorcycle to work. I choose a mellow route that meanders over backroads through some beautiful, hilly farmland. It’s a nice meditation, and a nice way to bookend the work day.
  3. Network latency. I worked over a fast cable internet connection, but some unknown link in the chain throttled network speeds to a crawl. I’m not sure whether it’s simply the nature of VPN, or an under-provisioned server, or if it’s an issue with Adobe applications. Photoshop CC took 34 seconds to open a 52MB file off of a network drive, versus 7 seconds to open the same file saved to my local machine’s desktop. I quickly figured out that it was more effective to copy files down to my local machine, work on them there, then copy them back to the network drive when I was done.
  4. Telephone service. Out here in the country where I live, Verizon’s wireless signal is pathetic. Just about every phone call I take gets dropped or scrambled. This wasn’t a huge problem for my work, as I conducted most of my business asynchronously via email. But the handful of people who reached out by phone had to repeat themselves a couple of times.
  5. Time seemed to pass more slowly than usual. It felt a bit like jet lag at first. I attribute this to the absence of the habitual “structure” imposed by the normal work week: waking early, exercising, showering, donning the business-casual attire, commuting, etc. I created a new structure during my two weeks of telecommuting, but it felt unfamiliar, and it took almost the whole two weeks for my circadian rhythms to adjust to it.

In Conclusion

Obviously there are certain types of jobs (doctor, nurse, law enforcer, repair person, manufacturer, laborer) that require a physical presence at a particular work site. But for programmers, designers, writers, and other mostly computer-based professionals, telecommuting—even part of the time—seems like a reasonable and environmentally-responsible option. Kudos to the companies that trust their employees, and explore this modern approach to work.

Sunflower Tote Bags

A few years ago I set about to make a series of hand-painted canvas tote bags. I ordered a couple dozen plain canvas bags online. I drew up a simple, happy, graphic image that seemed like it would be easy to reproduce. I cut out a paper stencil so that I could transfer the drawing consistently from bag to bag. I cleared all the flat surfaces in my studio. Then I got busy making the acrylic paintings.

My original intention had been to put these on Etsy, sell a bunch of them, and fund my next art project. But they languished in my Etsy shop, and I never sold a single one. I ended up giving most of the bags away to friends and family members, and of course I’ve kept a couple for my own use. I may have one or two left; if you want one, please get in touch.

The photo gallery below shows the process I devised to make the paintings. Instead of painting each bag’s image from start to finish, I used the mass-production approach: I performed each step on all of the bags before proceeding to the next step. So for example, first I painted a rectangle of white primer (gesso) onto each of the bags and let it dry. Then I stenciled my sketch onto each of the bags. Then I painted the blue sky onto each of the bags. And so on. The later detail steps were a bit more improvisational, so there are minor differences among the paintings that hopefully add some character.

Art Show

Update November 13, 2016: I took down the show. I have updated the tenses in this post to reflect the new reality.

I exhibited some of my photographs at Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream in Easthampton, Massachusetts, October 8th through November 11th, 2016. There was an opening reception on Saturday, October 8th (as part of Easthampton’s monthly Art Walk). I loved seeing you there!

Details

I like to take photos involving outdoor scenes, trees, water, earth, and sculpted clouds. These days I share a lot of my work online, but it has been a while since I’ve shown the physical artifacts of the process. When my friend and fellow artist Jim Ingram asked me if I’d like to show my work at his ice cream shop, I said yes.

Originally I was going to show paintings. I’ve made a few of those over the past couple of years, but not enough to fill a whole show. Later, I thought that I might show a mix of a few paintings and a few prints. But after reviewing my whole available body of work, I decided to narrow the focus to one medium, and stick to photos. I’m glad I did, because in this case it made for a more cohesive show. The prints for this show were all either 12 by 12-inch squares, or 11 by 14-inch rectangles.

Please enjoy the gallery above, which offers a glimpse of the photos that were in the show. Please get in touch if you’d like to buy one. Soon I will be listing them in my Etsy shop.

Venue

Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream
34 Cottage Street, Easthampton, MA 01027

Nightfall over Providence

Recently we made a quick overnight trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to help Rebecca’s daughter settle into her dorm at college. The view from our hotel (Omni Providence) was pretty nice, so I got to try something I’ve been wanting to do: make a time-lapse movie of day turning into night in an urban environment.

I suppose I could have used my iPhone’s time-lapse mode and called it a day (into night—ha), but the quality of the iPhone’s photos suffers in low-light conditions. So I got my “good camera” ready, and embarked upon a little project.

Check out the short video above to see the result of my experiment.

Some notes on the equipment I used and how I set things up:

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II micro four-thirds format (great camera, awful name—I propose Zephyr)
  • Lens: Panasonic Lumix/Leica 25mm f/1.4 (equivalent to a 50mm focal length in “full-frame” camera terms)
  • Tripod: GorillaPod Original
  • Fortunately, the window of our 12th floor room was able to be opened about four inches, so I didn’t have to shoot through dirty windows or contend with room reflections in the glass.
  • I spent a good 15 minutes obsessing about whether to use a wider-angle lens, to capture a bigger view of the city. We could see Waterplace Park and a portion of the river from our room, and had it been a WaterFire night, that might have influenced my decision toward the “more-is-more” direction. But Rebecca, bless her, helped confirm my hunch that what this particular scene needed was a tighter crop of a specific subject: the domed Rhode Island State House at the other end of the street.
  • I settled on the 25 mm lens, set the camera on the tripod, aimed it through the open window, and composed the shot through the viewfinder.
  • I used the brightest f-stop available (f/1.4) and set the camera to aperture priority mode, so that the shutter speed would vary and the “after dark” shots would be adequately exposed.
  • I manually focused on the State House so that the camera wouldn’t waste any battery energy automatically refocusing for every shot. Also, auto-focus doesn’t always focus on the right thing—especially when the scene is dark—so I figured I’d take control of that aspect.
  • I set the camera to take medium-resolution shots. Again, I was concerned about battery life, and shooting RAW or high-resolution JPGs would have drained the camera’s battery too quickly.
  • Sunset was going to be at 7:17 p.m. I figured that if I started around 6:00 and ended around 8:00, I would capture the transition from light to dark nicely.
  • As far as the frequency of the shots, I started obsessing with the math, calculating how many shots I’d end up with if I set the camera to take a photo every 5, 10, or 15 seconds, and what the frame rate of the final video would need to be, to create smooth animation. I ultimately decided on one shot every 15 seconds, figuring that I could sort out the timing considerations later, in software. The camera has a programmable time-lapse mode, so I set it up, crossed my fingers, and pressed the shutter button.
  • We left to get some dinner, praying we would not come back to find that a flight of pigeons had taken up residence in our room. (They hadn’t.)
  • I’m glad I chose the 15-second interval, because as it happened, the battery died and the camera stopped taking pictures before I manually intervened. Fortunately, just enough shots (514) were captured.
  • Back at home on the computer, I imported the photos and used Apple’s QuickTime Pro 7 software to convert the image sequence into a movie. I tried one at 60 frames per second (FPS), one at 30 FPS, and one at 24 FPS, to see which one worked best. Ultimately I kept the 24 FPS one.
  • I brought that file into Final Cut Pro X software, cropped the composition to the 16:9 proportion of HD video, and rotated it a half of a degree to correct a slight listing feeling. Also, I shortened the movie somewhat at the beginning, as it felt like it was dwelling too heavily on the “day” side of the transition.
  • I exported the movie to Vimeo, and embedded it into this page.
  • The biggest lesson for me was the consideration of battery life. Olympus sells an add-on battery pack for my camera that combines two batteries, but it adds bulk and weight, and part of the reason I chose this camera in the first place was its compact form. If I plan to do longer time-lapse projects in the future, I might consider investing in it. But then again, I might simply switch to a 20- or 30-second interval, and make sure I start with a freshly-charged battery every time.

In Praise of Cranberry Wake

I love this short film Cranberry Wake by Alex Horner. It is such a perfect marriage of storytelling, history, sport, music, and abstraction, told with an exquisite attention to detail. Every frame of this film is a perfectly-composed painting.

The film starts out seeming to be a mini documentary on how cranberries are grown and harvested. But then the wakeskaters show up, and the film takes on a whole new dimension. “What’s a wakeskater?” you might ask. Watch the film and find out!

I’m particularly moved by how well the music harmonizes with the visuals. Steve Horner’s Light on Blue and Tycho’s Daydream are perfectly ethereal selections that complement the dreamy, slowed-down action shots. I would love to learn how to obtain rights to use another artist’s music in my own short films. Until then, I’ll continue to make my own music for films.

What Happens in the Barn Stays in the Barn

I’ve been enjoying taking photos at night and at the blue hour, using my Olympus camera, a tripod, and a long exposure. The time of day (9:10 p.m.) was the crucial element in this shot, because at this time of year, at my latitude, there’s still enough ambient light to take a four-second exposure that reveals some details in the landscape.

Moreover, with the sun already sunk below the horizon, the sky’s light is predominantly blue in hue, which makes a nice cool counterpoint for the warmer LED light that spills out from my barn through windows and cracks between the boards, illuminating swaths of grass and garden.

Fireflies

My backyard is asparkle with them.

This was a fun shot to make. The photo makes it appear as if all of the fireflies are lit at the same time. In actuality, I set up a long, tripod-mounted exposure, and individual fireflies may have been represented multiple times.

In order to illuminate the peach trees and the rhubarb patch in the foreground, I walked around the perimeter of the scene with a flashlight while the camera’s shutter was open, reflecting diffuse light off a lawn chair turned on its side. I had to take a few shots to get the exposure just right. This one took about a minute and a half, as I recall.

I love the unexpected results of this kind of shot—it reminds me to appreciate the photography of yore, when long exposures were necessary under even the brightest conditions, and a degree of uncertainty was the norm.

I’m sure that some of the fireflies appear in the photo not because of their own phosphorescence, but because they are being lit from the side by my flashlight. The glowing effect is magical nonetheless, and hopefully it captures the spirit of an early summer evening.

In Praise of Mr. Chickadee

A great resource for do-it-yourselfers (or those who would like to be)

Have you ever wondered how people made things in the olden days before we had power tools, die casting, injection moulding, 3D printing, sheet metal stamping, or robot welding? Well wonder no more, because Mr. Chickadee will show you.

I’ve fallen in love with—and subscribed to—his YouTube channel, which features episodes on how to make all manner of things from split stones, forged metal strap hinges, door latches, and masonry heaters, to entire systems like a timber frame workshop built entirely by hand. There’s also a blog that features some thoughtful writing and photographs, but there’s something magical and mesmerizing about watching the process unfold before your eyes in the movie format. His carpentry skills are exquisite.

Sometimes content on YouTube can be hit-or-miss, but this channel’s production values really shine, and mirror the fine craftsmanship of the work being documented. The films are beautifully composed and shot, and expertly edited. Presumably this is the work of Mrs. Chickadee, who makes appearances in several of the episodes (when she does, the camera seems to be tripod-mounted, versus hand-held). Playful cameo appearances by their pets add an endearing touch.

One of the most notable features of these movies is the lack of background music or verbal narration. All you get are the stoic sounds of the work being done, set against a meditative backdrop of natural sounds like rain, crickets, birds, etc. At first this can be a little disorienting if you have no idea what is being done and are looking for answers in familiar written or verbal form. But if you are able, be patient, learn to trust your eyes and to absorb the information visually. Mr. Chickadee will not let you down. Onward to self-reliance!

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

Racism in 21st Century America

The year is 2016 and racism still exists? It is incumbent upon us to figure out why, and to try to solve it.

Like many, I reeled in despair and disbelief at the news of the murder of nine innocent people in Charleston, South Carolina, by a delusional young person whose motive was racism. My primary response is concern and compassion for the victims, their families, and the community of good people in Charleston. Beyond that, I am concerned about what the crime says about the current state of racism in the United States (as Jon Stewart so eloquently describes). I’m appalled that racism still exists, and I consider it a failure of our education system and collective upbringing that people still manage to make it through school and into adulthood without being exposed to the perspective that people are equal regardless of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Continue reading “Racism in 21st Century America”