The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

My Laptop

My laptop is always with me, whether I am hiking in a Brazilian rain forest or attending a conference in Silicon Valley. This is inevitable: I live from a backpack. All my belongings must be with me wherever I happen to find myself.

Working on my laptop in a mosquito-infested in Alaska

You are always with me.

The laptop is my most precious asset: I use it to forge equations for a living, and it is also wickedly hard to replace.

The hardware itself is nothing special. It is a regular, high-end ultraportable that replicates the innards of a supercomputer. It lets me do small-scale modelling before moving on to serious computations. I back up data to a dedicated server at my university; nothing to be lost there either.

It is the cursed software stack that makes the laptop special. As a militant open source advocate, I spent six months getting everything working on the laptop. Freedom is an investment, and in the case of software, the investment means time that I do not want to lose.

I happily squat over crocodiles or jump out of air planes, but the cosy slot in my bag where my laptop resides is padded to protect it from harm. I stroll through slums with “kidnap me” written across my forehead, but my laptop has a lock. I am not concerned with my personal safety, but the safety of my laptop is a top priority.

Crocodiles lazing around in Burkina Faso

My laptop always watches from a safe distance when I befriend crocodiles.

I used to chain my laptop to the most immovable object in my room, which was usually a pipe. One hotel room had nothing to tie a laptop to. I wanted to make the potential thief’s job as hard as possible: I tied intricate knots around the chair with the chain. The thief would either have to take both the chair and the laptop or return empty-handed. They both remained where they were.

Then one fine day in Kazakhstan, I had to chain the laptop to the sewage pipe. When I left the hotel, I forgot to double check whether I left anything in the loo. My laptop found its way to its cosy slot, but the chain did not. Since then, I did not bother to replace the lock, and my laptop still journeys with me.

It is with me all the time — except when I outsource carrying it to somebody else. This happened when I was a novice nomad with an enormous backpack, travelling through South America for the first time. Two buddies joined me in Colombia for the trip. They travelled much lighter — they did not carry their entire lives on their backs. Undertaking a hike in northern Peru, one of my buddies asked me whether he could help with the load. Back then, I had a chunky, three-kilo ThinkPad, which went sightseeing in the Andes in my buddy’s bag. He regretted ever asking me.

A llama spotted by my laptop

My laptop saw lots of interesting animals in the Andes — all from its vantage point in the backpack of my buddy.

On the same trip, I was desperate to finish some calculations. Electricity, however, was a sparse resource in the mountains. Dim lightbulbs were common, sometimes they even worked, but power sockets were not decorating the walls. Finally we stayed in a hotel where the ensuite toilet had a power socket.

I sat on the toilet for an hour setting up the experiments, then I let them run overnight. The paper discussing the results was accepted in a decent journal: 21st-century science emerges from Bolivian toilets. Technology democratizes science. This is what laptops were intended to do.

My laptop seldom sees usage that it was not intended for — with one notable exception. Being devoid of sense, I wanted to hike in the Himalayas in the winter. After frosting our behinds in snow-covered tents for a week, we returned to the village where we started the hike. The guy whose sleeping bag I rented had vanished, leaving me with nothing but a few blankets in a room with no heating. I was not going to survive until the morning.

In this dire situation, I noticed a power socket in the wall. A plan took shape in my head: I could run an algorithm to keep the CPU of my laptop heated, and leech on the heat blown by the fan. The following bit of code deserves an award:

public class HeatForPoorPeter {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        while (true) {
        }
    }
}

This code is guaranteed to be thread-safe, hacker-proof, memory-efficient, and generate enough heat to keep a freezing mathematician alive. I fell asleep embracing my source of heat, developing a far deeper relationship with my laptop than was healthy.

Cat sitting on a Thinkpad.

Cats also find alternative uses for laptops.

People love to make an impact on the things they own. They obsess about their homes: they cannot stop thinking about how to renovate it, beautify it, remove a wall to make it more spacious, or build a new wall to use space more efficiently.

Cars are the same: you want to have awesome tires, an audio system you will never use, and corny items dangling from the rear-view mirror to express your personality. I have no home or car. I obsessively daydream about modifications to my laptop that I will never actually carry out.

I want to make it more space efficient, lighter, more multi-functional. I cannot stop thinking about how to use the dead space of the ExpressCard slot. It is a waste of six whole cubic centimetres. The built-in mic is not working. If removed, it would save two grams. Annoying screws also add several more grams. The power LED emits so much light that if it was removed, the battery would last three minutes longer.

Hundreds of hours of research went into my ultimate modification daydream. I am dying to remove the touchpad and have a slot for my phone in its place: the touchscreen would serve the same functionality. Yet the only modification I ever made was the removal of irrelevant stickers from the palm rest: 0.001 grams saved and a nano cubic meter liberated. Acting is secondary, thinking is core. The centre of my universe is my laptop.

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