What’s on your desk, Joanna Nelius?
15 mins read

What’s on your desk, Joanna Nelius?


Joanna Nelius is a recent addition to The Verge’s staff, having joined us a little over a month ago to become our new laptop reviewer. But while she’s been reviewing laptops, desktops, and PC hardware for her entire career, she is also going to report on broadband and education. “I’m particularly excited to start reporting on the latter two,” she says, “because that’s what I used to cover when I wrote for Gizmodo and ended up falling in love with those beats.”

In fact, Joanna’s background is in creative writing, literature, and teaching. “But with the current chaos surrounding generative AI,” she explains, “and the push for more tech courses, including digital media literacy in cash-strapped schools, it feels like I’m in the right place at the right time.” She is also working on a memoir and several short stories. 

Here, Joanna discusses her use of today’s technology, her fondness for yesterday’s, and how her family’s past has influenced her present.

You can tell a lot about a person by examining their book collection.

That’s a nice space. Where in your home is it?

Downstairs and off the main hallway, where most of the other rooms are located. My partner and I decided to move in together recently, and we settled here because it had enough space for us to each have our own office. We both work from home, are in and out of meetings all the time, and do creative work that requires a lot of focus, so separate workspaces were on our list of requirements before we even started looking at places.

All of the furniture in my office came from my old place. I insisted on keeping my living room couch because it wasn’t cheap, but I also really wanted an office space that felt similar to some of my college and grad school professors’ offices. Theirs were cozy and filled with the smell of old books, worn leather furniture, and photocopied reading packets. I’m getting nostalgic just thinking about them.

Tell us about your desk. 

I love antiques, things that scream early 20th century, especially if they feel like they could have come from a school. Mine is a three-piece from World Market, and it’s about as utilitarian as you can get for a work desk: heavy, thick wood for the surface, and painted, slightly distressed metal for the storage. I’m glad I opted for one side to have open shelves instead of two sets of drawers, though. Like a lot of early 20th-century furniture, the drawers don’t have tracks, so it’s just metal rubbing on metal and doesn’t always sound great — but I love this desk and don’t see myself getting rid of it anytime soon, if ever.

And your chair?

My swivel chair is also from World Market, and I bought it at the same time as the desk (years ago, and both are now discontinued). There were other color choices, but I went with this one because I thought it fit the best into the vibe I was trying to create.

In retrospect, I should have gone with a darker color. No matter how often I take a scrub brush to my chair, I can’t make it look like new again. It was also a lot more comfortable when I first bought it, but after several years of remote work, I can sometimes feel a spring poking me in the butt. I probably should buy a new one, but overall, it’s truly been the most comfortable swivel chair I’ve owned.

It’s also forced me to have good sitting posture, which is crucial when you sit at a computer all day! You’d think high-backed office chairs would do that for me, but I’m much shorter than the average person, so all they’ve done for me is give me neck and shoulder pain to complain about.

Sometimes a good working environment means a comfortable group of familiar objects.

Here’s the big one: tell us about the tech you’re using. 

Speaking of aches and pains — my partner gave me his Logitech MX Master 3 mouse because the gaming mouse I was using before (and the three gaming mice before that) started giving me wrist pains. My pinky would lock up sometimes, too.

I don’t have any of those issues with the MX Master 3. It’s ergonomically designed to keep your wrist in a natural position, and even though it’s such a small adjustment compared to how my wrist is positioned with a standard gaming mouse, it was enough to completely get rid of the pain. Now, I use this mouse for everything, even gaming.

My keyboard is the Nuphy Air75 V2 with low profile keys and the company’s own Cowberry linear mechanical switches. I can see why Nuphy named this specific mechanical keyboard line “Air,” because it does feel like you are typing on air. The keys require little actuation force, and they make a pleasant and light thunk sound when they bottom out — even the spacebar, which has some of the best key stabilizers I’ve ever seen on a keyboard. I’ve used too many mechanical keyboards with wobbly, pingy spacebars.

Keyboard with white, gray, red, and yellow keys.

$120

Excellent QMK / VIA wireless mechanical keyboard.

The keyboard’s translucent panel goes hard on the ’90s vibes, too, and makes me nostalgic for the green VTech cordless home phone I had in high school. Should this keyboard ever give me the same wrist problems as gaming mice, I will cry. It’s the best keyboard I’ve ever used.

It might look like there are three displays on my desk, but the two little displays are part of a dual-screen laptop, the Lenovo Yoga Book 9i. My main machine used to be a gaming desktop that I built, paired with the same Gigabyte M28U display and another monitor, but after reviewing GPUs and CPUs plus laptops for so many years, all that hardware overwhelmed my workspace. I tried just using one monitor for a while, but it wasn’t as convenient for managing multiple windows. My workflow broke.

Then, Lenovo came out with its Yoga Book 9i, which solved both my space and workflow issues instantly. The dual display was one reason and the Thunderbolt 4 ports were another. Since they support the DisplayPort protocol, I only needed a $10 adapter to connect my M28U monitor to my laptop.

Lenovo Yoga Book 9i laptop with two screens open.

$2000

The Yoga Book 9i jettisons the traditional lower laptop deck for a second touchscreen.

It also came with a keyboard, folio case and stand, a stylus, and a mouse, so on the days I teach interactive fiction to teenagers, I just pack all that up and go. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this laptop truly changed my workflow for the better.

Judging from its disk drives and CRT monitor, that’s a pretty old PC you’ve got. And is that a Vectrex?

It is a Vectrex! I first learned about this portable all-in-one gaming console system about 10 years ago, so I tracked one down on eBay and was delighted that it still worked perfectly.

The old PC is a 1994 IBM ValuePoint 433DX/D I also found on eBay. It’s almost identical to my first PC: the first PC I ever played games on and the first PC that taught me how to type. Mine didn’t have dual processors like this one, though. Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely boot up at the moment. It turns on, the hard drive spins, but I’m worried I did something to it when I replaced the CMOS battery. I’m glad I at least have it, though. It reminds me of my dad, so I like keeping it in my office.

This 1994 IBM PC sits alongside a Vectrex gaming console system.

The Nuphy Air75 V2 keyboard with Cowberry linear mechanical switches.

A good gamer needs a pile of old-time CDs.

And then there’s the pile of game CDs…

Some of those I recently bought at a retro game store near my house, but 3-D Ultra Minigolf used to be my dad’s. We played that together all the time when I was a kid. I’d sit to his right so it was easier for me to reach the mouse, and we’d take turns putting our golf balls around ocean floors and other intricate Putt-Putt obstacle courses. At one point, my dad started figuring out how to get holes in one by aiming the ball at anything but the hole, and he taught me how to do it. 

SimCoaster is another one from my childhood, but it was originally my brother’s. We often played it together, him focusing on building and layout, and me on the economics of running a cartoon-like theme park. 

Where did you get that wonderful typewriter?

It’s a family heirloom! After my granny was done serving in the WAVES during WWII, she moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, and that Remington 12 was one of the things she brought with her. It was originally her sister’s, who acquired it from the lace factory where they worked at the time. I don’t know the exact circumstances that allowed her to take it, but if I had to guess, the company was upgrading their typewriters from the Remington 12 to electric IBMs and needed to get rid of the old machines.

From there, it sat in my aunt and uncle’s storage (or rather, their garage), and when my granny passed away, my aunt gave it to me, along with an entire plastic bag of unopened inked ribbon boxes. The ribbon that was already installed in the typewriter still had some ink left in it, even after being in storage for decades, although I had to press the keys down with a significant amount of force to get the letters to show up. But every part of it is still in working order, save for a couple letter levers that don’t completely fold back down after you press their corresponding keys.

The typewriter is a family heirloom from just after WWII.

Are those family photos on the wall near the typewriter?

Yes, of my ancestors. (They are reprints that were made in the 1970s, not originals, unfortunately. I have no idea what happened to those.) The two on the right are of my granny’s family in the early 1920s, taken a few years after the adults in the photo immigrated from the Czech Republic, when it was still Czechoslovakia. My granny is the oldest child in both of those photos, around three years old. Her younger sister is to the right of her in the photo with the whole family. The baby is my great-uncle, and then there’s my great-grandmother, her brother in the middle, and then her husband on the right.

The old-timey photo on the left is of my Italian great-grandparents, taken around the same time, after they had immigrated from Naples to Brooklyn. I have no idea who the baby is in the photo above that. My aunt has no idea, either. It was among my granny’s things in storage when she passed, so we assume it’s one of our ancestors — maybe one of the great-great-uncles since he’s dressed like a little WWI soldier. One day I’ll figure it out.

Are there any stories behind the pictures above your desk?

Only the black-and-white one in the middle and the cel animation sheet on the right. (I do love Friday the 13th, though!) The cel is an original from the animated Beetlejuice series. I found it at a collectibles shop near old town Vegas, within walking distance from (if I’m remembering correctly) the Four Queens with a generous Big Lebowski slot machine that funded my shopping trip.

The black-and-white landscape photo is one of her great-uncle’s original prints.

The black-and-white landscape photo is one of my great-uncle’s original prints. In college, I was heavily involved in black-and-white film photography, from developing the negatives myself to making my own prints. I spent more time in a dark room than I did in my dorm room. But I knew very little about my great-uncle back then, beyond that he was a photographer at some point during his life. I only met the man once when I was a kid, and the only thing I remember about him was that he was grumpy, and he and my grandma didn’t seem to get along.

Some years after I graduated college, my great-uncle passed away, and to my surprise, that original print showed up in the mail. My grandmother did talk to her sister-in-law on a regular basis and mentioned me getting into photography, because my great-aunt was not only insistent on giving it to me but also took the opportunity to tell me about his career as a photographer.

The man was a Guggenheim fellow. He taught graduate seminars and photographed ancient coins for the American Numismatic Society. His work was published in books alongside the work of Minor White and Ansel Adams. I’m not sure if the MoMA still keeps some of his original prints in its collection, but his work was part of its collection back when my great-aunt sent me that print.

At that point in my life, I was the only one in my family (and much of my extended family) who did anything creative, so I felt like I didn’t belong. But learning all of that about my great-uncle changed everything. It was the encouragement I needed to keep pursuing a career as a writer. I probably wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for that photograph.

Photography by Joanna Nelius / The Verge



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