Is Life Without a Laptop Still Feasible?

I originally wrote this article for Volume 118, Issue 2 of mathNEWS.

When I was in first year, I went without a laptop.

Why?

Laptops are heavy, expensive, or both. Their bright, ever-flashing screens potentially distract dozens of one’s peers when used in lecture halls. You’re always hunting for the next electrical outlet, so that you’re not locked out of your own data by a dead battery. They depreciate in value really quickly.

They told me that it was possible to complete all my assignments without a laptop. We had labs on campus, after all. Granted, campus was really far from Ron Eydt Village for those long, cold, February nights, but at least they were there. At least one was open, no matter what hour of day or night. If there was ever a night where I had trouble sleeping, I could procrastinate on Facebook for an hour or two before diving into nano (– I hadn’t yet bothered to try out vim or emacs –), finishing off my assignment, and uploading my code to Marmoset.

This term, I realized something was different. The Piazza group for CS 136 contained this question:

Linux Labs
Just wondering where exactly the Linux labs are? http://www.cs.uwaterloo.ca/cscf/teaching/labs Lists the Linux labs as CS488 students only - any ideas?

And, in one of the follow-up responses:

So I can login in MC3006, but I'm not logging into a Ubuntu system. I have gedit, but not RunC. What am I screwing up here?

It occurs to me that there no longer appears to be a documented 24/7 X11/RDP lab for general use by CS students.

Not that there aren’t options. There are certainly alternatives – one could use the RDP clients maintained by MFCF to access their Solaris and Windows machines, and then use SSH (and probably X-forwarding) to access the undergraduate CS environment. One could likewise use SSH/X-forwarding/Portable Xming on the Nexus machines maintained by other faculties, like Engineering or AHS. Or one could figure out how to get X-forwarding to work in one of the Mac labs – though that tends to be more hit-and-miss than I’d like.

One could also skip lectures to do the assignments during the few precious hours when the labs actually are open, Monday to Friday, 0800 to 2100. Gosh, my bank has better hours than that. It’s open on Saturday, for example.

As for me; I’ve been borrowing my friend’s old laptops for almost eight months now. I hate this feeling of being constantly chained to the edges of the room where laptop outlets exist. I miss all times I met and absorbed knowledge from upper-years at two in the morning. I feel less like a ninja and more like a zombie. I’m also constantly afraid that I’ll submit an assignment that works just fine when run over SSH X-forwarding, and yet mysteriously breaks when run on ye olde thin client. Perhaps I’m being paranoid. I do wonder, though, whether I’d survive, if I was a first-year today.

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