Memory Lane: How I used to do my computing

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Recently, I felt a compulsion to write a section on my About Page regarding how I go about doing my computing. Part of this is because I’m currently going through a wave of being nerdy about computing again: switching my OS, and migrating some things like text editors1. As I was writing this section, I felt it turning into a bit of a history of my computing rather than what I wanted it to be. So I thought I’d extract it into a post where I indulge my nostalgia and take a trip back down memory lane.

In that spirit, this post contains a timeline of how I’ve done my computing throughout the years. I’ve divided it into yearly sections in order to try and keep it from meandering backwards and forwards. In each grouping I’ll try to provide a quick summary of key events, systems, apps etc.

Pre 2005

  • My machine was a shared family desktop computer, which I could access intermittently on weekends. It had very little RAM, something like 128MB, and a 20GB IDE HDD. The CRT monitor was a beast.
  • The Operating System was Windows ME.
  • I mostly used the computers at the local library.

Before I went to High School2, our family shared a single computer. Not too unusual, for the time. I think my parents bought it for two reasons: to try and get ‘the internet’ at home; and to have something with a DVD player.

At the beginning, I didn’t do much with this machine. I was only around 9 or 10 years old when we got it. I do remember that XP seemed to get released soon afterwards, and that all of my friends ended up having Windows XP machines which were much better! It didn’t run many games; but the Windows ME machine was good enough for web browsing ProBoards forums and writing documents using Microsoft Works. During this period we were often without internet access for some time, if my parents decided we couldn’t afford it or the machine broke. In these cases I used the machines at the local library. I’d often be there every Saturday to use the computing cluster, and some evenings after school. I ran a (free) ProBoards instance for some friends at school so I wanted to keep up with that.

As I grew throughout Middle School, and as I went into High School aged 13 at the tail end of 2005, I used the machine a bit more as I wanted to browse the web a lot more, and High School began to require / expect some work to be completed using a word processor. I hand-coded a site in raw (bad) HTML and within Notepad. On the homework front, our Windows ME machine with MS Works produced files that were incompatible with MS Word used at the school. I ended up staying back after school in the library to use the machines there a lot of the time.

Around this time, I think for Christmas 2005; my sister and I got iPod Minis as our present that year. Sadly, iTunes wasn’t compatible with Windows ME so we had to use my dad’s laptop which had Windows XP on it, to manage our libraries. I think this annoyed him a little, and when my sister came to High School the year following me; we didn’t last long competing for the machine in the evening (despite doing homework at the School Library I continued to hang out on the web at home) we were thankfully lucky enough as a family to afford a Windows XP machine each for completing our homework on.

2006 to 2008

  • I was given my own desktop machine which ran Windows XP. It had 512MB of Ram, and an 80GB IDE HDD.
  • I discovered Free, Libre, and Open Source software via OpenOffice and later Firefox.
  • In 2008 I installed Ubuntu 7.10, later Ubuntu 8.04 via Wubi. This was later replaced by a ‘proper’ dual boot and eventually became the sole OS on the device.
  • I fell to the dark side and bought a third-hand iBook G4 from a friend, leading me to use Mac OS X 10.6 (Leopard) for a while.

Now with my own machine, I was browsing the web, torrenting, and reading things to my heart’s content every night. The system was still pretty humble, even for the time, with less than a 1GB of RAM and no dedicated GPU. This meant I couldn’t do what my friends were doing and start playing video games. I thus contented myself with learning more about HTML and about random aspects of computing, or torrenting lots of movies and TV. Most of the time I was still using Internet Explorer as a browser, but I kept seeing the word ‘Firefox’ on the sites I was sometimes visiting. I was still using iTunes to manage my now ever-growing collection of music and I learned to rip DVDs to movie files to complement my torrent collection (I never did learn how to upload these as torrents, though). The machine came preinstalled, once again, with Microsoft Works, but I believe I saved all the files as .rtf to then open up via Microsoft Word at school. If only I’d known about Plain text back then!!

I’m now a big believer in Free Software, and I’m a bit of a Stallman-ite when it comes to my definition of Free Software and my strong preference for the GPL family of licences. This journey actually began when I was 15 and one of the IT staff at the school knew I was into computing, and gave me a USB stick containing OpenOffice 2 so that I could use my home’s computer for homework without needing to pay for a copy of MS Word. Using OpenOffice was a game-changer, and doing some reading about it lead me to discovering the term Open Source for the first time. This lead very naturally into me researching the term ‘Open Source’. This then lead me to read about ‘Firefox’, which I’d seen referenced about the web.

From there, it was a simple task to actually downloading Firefox and thus begin my journey into the world of Free Software. The four freedoms of Free Software just made sense to me but I didn’t really know how to take it further. I’d heard of this “Linux” thing before, but couldn’t quite figure out what it entailed. Then I saw this video and was amazed at how amazing and advanced Ubuntu seemed to be when compared to Windows Vista. Despite now having my very own XP box, I was always a step behind and while I’d finally upgraded to XP, now (seemingly) everyone else was moving on to Vista. At the time, I was still sold on “shiny” things, and I wasn’t really critical of Windows at the time either. I therefore envied the delightful mid-2000s eye-candy that people were able to access on their Vista systems, and being able to rival that via this Ubuntu thing was very appealing. After a bit of nascent YouTube-ing, I discovered a program which would safely install Ubuntu on top of my Windows XP installation. Post-install, I booted up Ubuntu for the first time and was slightly disappointed that my cheap computer without a graphics card couldn’t perform all the shiny effects that I saw in the earlier YouTube video. Not to matter. I got to work understanding my system anyway. Linux was finally de-mystified and (more importantly) I had some nerdy streetcred. I read more about my new OS and began learning about how Ubuntu was a ‘distro’ of GNU/Linux. Eventually, I replaced my Wubi install with a full Ubuntu install when 8.04 came out (this remains my favourite Ubuntu release), and dual-booted it with Windows XP. At this point I was doing the majority of my daily tasks within Ubuntu, but I still had an iPod which required to be loaded from iTunes; so sadly I still needed access to XP.

The XP install didn’t last long, however. After a few months XP became really nastily corrupted. As of writing, this is a long time ago and I can’t quite remember what happened. What most likely occurred is that I torrented something a little dodgy, or otherwise stumbled onto a website which managed to load some malware. After realising Windows was becoming unusable I made my decision to jump whole-heartedly into Ubuntu. I ensured all my files on both partitions were on my back-up hard drive, updated my iPod one last time, gave XP a quick salute for its service, and installed Ubuntu 8.04 as the sole OS; wiping both previous partitions. I now had my first ever purely GNU-Linux box.

This was my main machine throughout the remainder of my final school year in 2008 and into the summer. Like a lot of new GNU/Linux users I did a tiny bit of distro-hopping, but only over the course of around a month. I tried Fedora, OpenSUSE, even Debian. I failed to get Gentoo running. At the time, most of these distros used GNOME 2 as their default Desktop Environment and to my untrained eyes they just looked like re-skins of Ubuntu, with different package managers. I reinstalled Hardy Heron after a few weeks and simply went on my way. Since my OS was now stable, I began revelling in the flexibility of GNU/Linux and customised the interface a LOT to a level what I now believe is termed RICEing. I spent ages getting the best Conky setup. I installed GTK themes, adjusted my GNOME 2 panels to figure out exactly what I wanted, downloaded custom icons. I was incredibly happy and a bit of a stereotypical nerd with this. I finished my school year with this machine and Ubuntu 8.04’s install of OpenOffice. I used Pidgin to chat on MSN messenger with my friends, and used Transmission to get the media I wanted. I could play music on the machine using Rhythmbox, but sadly was still unable to put anything new on my iPod.

Outside of the desktop, I discovered Rockbox. By now, I’d also very luckily been gifted an ‘iPod Classic’ for a Christmas present, which had replaced the iPod Mini. I installed it without hesitation on the iPod Mini and subsequently the iPod Classic. I remember the interface being a little confusing, but I was sold on the shiny functionality as well as the fact it was Open Source. Unfortunately, I think the Rockbox firmware couldn’t be used to update the music on either iPod since it effectively dual-booted the device. I’d need to update the library using iTunes somehow, and then hit a button in Rockbox to update its database.

All in all, it looked like I was set for a world of FLOSS-based wholesomeness forever more. But then I fell, temporarily, to the dark side…

As I was learning about GNU/Linux at this time I was also learning about *NIX and UNIX-like architectures in general, and at the same time Mac OS X Leopard had arrived on the scene. Apple’s propaganda/advertising campaign was in full swing and although I was never quite bitten by the Apple-bug; I was turned against Windows by this point since I’d experienced doing this different. And oh man did Leopard look shiny! I read up on the system and learned that it was based on a UNIX-like system known as BSD (this is also when I discovered that BSD existed), and figured it looked really nice and I’d like to try it.

In the summer of 2008 I got my first job slinging pizzas and was able to save up a bit of money. A friend was upgrading their laptop and getting rid of their old Apple iBook G4, which I then read was compatible with Leopard. I was itching to update my iTunes music library and Leopard was only £80 to buy, so I gave him £100 and got myself an iBook. It was… fine. I really liked being able to use software like iTunes again but my Ubuntu machine was still taking pride of place. In my head, I really liked the idea that these two systems were “cousins” of a sort. I even used some really nice wallpaper on the machines to make them look like they belonged with each other: Hardy Heron / OS X Leopard Purple for use on my iBook and Hardy Heron / OS X Orange for use on my Ubuntu box.

I used the iBook from the summer of 2008, alongside my Ubuntu box until late 2009, so around 14-16 months. It was my “school” laptop when I attended 6th Form college during the first year of my A-levels. I installed Dropbox (new on the scene at the time!) and used my free 2GB storage to sync my array of .odt files which I needed for A-levels. Most of my computing at the time was still web browsing, media downloading or manipulating, word processing, or producing slideshows. It became cumbersome to carry around and I was tired of syncing everything with Dropbox. The loud chime when I turned the machine on really annoyed me, and the G4 processor was beginning to show its age. I replaced it toward the end of 2009 when an interesting opportunity arose.

2009 to 2011

  • I ditched my iBook G4 for a new laptop, which I’ve forgotten the model of. This became my primary machine and was a triple boot between Ubuntu, Mac OS X Leopard (later Snow Leopard), and Windows 7. It had approx a 200GB hard disk, and around 2GB of RAM.
  • My desktop machine from 2006 fell into disuse and eventually I dismantled it and got rid of it.
  • In Spring 2011, I built a PC for the very first time which was run solely on Ubuntu, and I used it with two monitors. It had a 1TB internal HDD for the system, and 2 x 2TB internal HDDs for media storage, and about 4GB of RAM.
  • Both my laptop and my newly-built machine failed upon my move to Newcastle for University in late 2011, so were replaced with a single laptop machine which I used to run Ubuntu as the only OS. It had 4GB of RAM and an i5 processor, and I think around a 500GB HDD. I replaced the HDD of the machine with a 40GB SSD midway through my University course to eke some more life out of it.

Throughout 2009 I enjoyed my *NIX life, but eventually grew tired of my G4 machine and my ageing desktop. In September 2009 I also bean my resit of my AS Levels, this involved repeating a year and I switched from a classic Science-focus (Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and English Lit) to an IT and computing one. This exposed me to a new set of friends and I met someone who claimed he could run Mac OS X on non-Apple (and therefore much more affordable) hardware. I instantly became intrigued. By this time, I’d come around again and was very sceptical of Apple as a company as well as the false economy of their products; but I really liked OS X as a system and thought it’d be pretty cool to try and get it working on a new machine. I was in. I bought a machine off of my friend, a laptop whose model I cannot remember for the life of me. It had a halfway decent processor and about 2GB of RAM, so plenty for the systems I wanted to run. I then issued a challenge. My friend was accustomed to getting the Hackintosh up and running, sometimes even dual-booting it with the then-fresh (and halfway decent) Windows 7 system. I wanted to use GNU/Linux on it as well. Primarily Ubuntu, with OS X being the second option. The more I thought about it, though, the more appealing a triple-boot system became to me. It would allow me to run, effectively, anything that I wanted. For example, my A-level courses required me to use some proprietary software such as Adobe Flash which was easier to pirate on Windows 7 than on Mac OS X (as far as I was concerned anyway). It was also, to my young mind, cool as heck.

We succeeded. From my limited days of distro-hopping, I was familiar with the act of partitioning disks (a lot more than I am now, actually) and set up the hard drive when installing Ubuntu. Ubuntu received half of the drive’s storage space, and the two proprietary systems each got a quarter. In my excitement, I had originally considered trying to get a FreeBSD install running, or else creating a shared ‘data’ partition that could be mounted and shared by each system; but I could never get FreeBSD installed with a working graphical environment (like Gentoo) and I remember reading that there would be an issue with machines only recognising 3 primary or bootable partitions; which prevented that anyway. In retrospect, it might have actually all been fine. My friend, thankfully, took care of all of the Hackintosh side of things. That involved scary things like .kext files and the like. Once that was running we installed Windows 7 and I booted back into Ubuntu to makes sure that GRUB was being used as the bootloader. This allowed me to set up a custom GRUB menu to choose the system at boot, passing the bootstrap down to Hackintosh’s ‘Darwin’ bootloader.

I used this machine pretty solidly as my daily driver for most tasks until the Spring in 2011. It supplanted both the iBook G4 and my old Ubuntu desktop machine. I really enjoyed it. Most of my school files were backed up on Dropbox (with a client application on each installed system!), and I stored the working or ‘master’ copies of my school files on a USB pen, which was the style at the time. This allowed me to use the school machines as well, when I’d forgotten or couldn’t be bothered to bring through my laptop. I really loved this machine, even going so far as to give it a custom spray paint job. I still think back on it rather fondly, although I would never really need to establish a similar setup again.

By the spring of 2011, the novelty of the triple-boot had worn off and I also missed having a dedicated Ubuntu box. I also had a few other itches to scratch: I’d always fantasised about both building my own computer, and having a computer with two monitors. I also wanted a desk again, for my bedroom at home. These notions burned away at the young, undisciplined, Matt until they combined with the idea of building a dedicated Ubuntu box which acted as a media centre and workstation, attached to a decent sound system, with two monitors, sitting at a desk in my bedroom. I set about researching and building the machine slowly. When it was finally finished I christened it “Big Bertha”, because it had three hard drives attached: one for the system and two 2TB drives for storing media. I also gave it around 4GB of RAM, which allowed me to run a virtual Windows XP machine comfortably on the second monitor, which for some reason I had in my head that I needed. Between my Triple boot laptop (known as “Norn”), and “Big Bertha”; I was very happy and planned just to keep Big Bertha upgraded and swap out hardware occasionally. I was happy using the laptop as my portable device for getting work done on at school; as I still wholeheartedly loved the machine. Big Bertha didn’t have a dedicated GPU, but the motherboard could drive two monitors with the onboard VGA and DVI ports.

Big Bertha and Norn were my daily drivers together for the remainder of the year until I moved to university. In September of 2011, I moved from my hometown to Newcastle, and took my machines with me. I had planned on using basically the same setup at university that I’d been using at college: Big Bertha at home for Minecraft, media, and most computing tasks, while my laptop would come with me to campus for note taking. Unfortunately, both of these machines failed in pretty rapid succession upon my move to Newcastle. Big Bertha lasted about a month, into October, before it suddenly refused to boot. I was a poor student and couldn’t afford to really get to grips with what was wrong so took to using the laptop again. Sadly, at this point, the charging port was a bit shonky and the battery life was abysmal. In addition to this, the screen connector was battered and occasionally the screen would go blank unless I adjusted it to exactly the correct angle. I struggled with it for some time until I got a £500 bursary in November, which I immediately sank into a new machine just to replace both of my dead and dying ones.

I promptly installed Ubuntu as the only OS onto the new machine. It had an i5 processor, and 4GB of RAM so was perfect for my computing needs. My fascination with running multiple systems had run its course and I was ready to return to the warm embrace of GNU/Linux monogamy. The university had Windows 7 installed at the main computing cluster, and we were mostly programming in Java and writing essays; so LibreOffice and Ubuntu did me fine. During this period Google Chrome came out and then came to GNU/Linux. Back then I wasn’t as sceptical of Google as I am now, and I was tired of having to clone my Firefox profile between installs (the Triple Boot laptop had presented a particular challenge for this); so I, shamefully, jumped ship to using Chrome as a browser. This, unfortunately, started me down a dark road.

I never did find out what was wrong with Big Bertha. The machine did get a brief new lease of life during the summer of 2012. I was working several jobs across the summer — slinging pizzas and also picking up some work at the university — and I was beginning to miss having access to my vast media library which were locked away on the machine. So I bought a new power supply and installed it, and Big Bertha lived again very briefly until the same problem occurred. I’m not sure what happened; whether I had set something up wrong during the build or something else was amiss. In either case, I didn’t have enough cash or motivation to keep pressing it when my new laptop was working fine. Big Bertha was eventually cannibalised. I took the hard disks and put them into external caddies, and I gave the rest of the components away to friends.

2012 to 2014

  • In the summer of 2012 I get my first Android Smartphone as well as an ASUS Transformer TF300T tablet. I used the tablet for taking to campus and taking notes until I gradually stopped.
  • In 2013 I replaced my laptop with an ultrabook from PC Specialist. It had similar specs, but was much lighter. It ran Ubuntu, and later Xubuntu.
  • In 2013 I replaced my smartphone with a Galaxy Nexus, and then replaced that in 2014 with a Motorola Moto E.

Also during the summer of 2012, I got my first ever phone contract and it came with a basic smartphone. This drove me into the world of Android, as well as the Google App-ecosystem. That smartphone was fine, and I barely remember using it. It lasted about a year before I replaced it during my second year of University. At the same time I also treated myself, due to the aforemention extra summer income, to an ASUS Transformer tablet. A colleague on my course at university during first year had one of these and I obsessed over getting one for a long time. When summer came around I got it soon after my first smartphone. I loved it, and used it to watch Netflix around the house as it had lower power consumption than my laptop. When the second year of my degree began in September 2012, I used it all throughout the winter as a note taking device because it had Google Docs access; cementing my temporary fall to the even-darker side of computing.

Partway through the second year of University I upgraded my laptop with an SSD, which sped things up considerably. It was by far the most cost-effective upgrade I’d ever made. The SSD wasn’t large, so I needed to get used to not having much space for media on the machine itself. The machine lasted two years before the charging port gave out. I always think I’m taking care of machines, but I must be more heavy-handed than I realise… either that or they’d get damaged in my backpack. My computing was basically the same at this point, except I’d been using Google Docs for writing documents. As noted earlier, this was motivated by having access to the Google Docs on my tablet device for note taking; but was finalised the move was that I was having to jump between my laptop, my tablet, and the Windows 7-based computing cluster. I had a few essays corrupted on me by failing to unmount the USB properly the previous year, so it seemed like a good move even if I was just trying to preserve my work.

During 2012/13 I got suckered by the “need a new smartphone” propaganda, and noticed that my smartphone was severely lagging behind in terms of system updates; still being on Android 2. I upgraded to a secondhand Galaxy Nexus device, which I have a few fond memories of. I didn’t use the device to its full potential, but it embedded me further into the Google App ecosystem by snaring me with the functionality of Google Play Music. Specifically, I could upload my own music, delete it off my machines to free up space, and then pin music to devices when I wanted to download and listen to it offline. Honestly, the interaction was pretty much perfect. I was hooked on Google Play Music for a while before I began to mistrust it.

The ASUS tablet fell out of favour as it got slower and slower, and I tried to do as much computing as possible with a single machine. It was relegated to my bedside drawer for a long time when I was tired of lugging it around campus. It saw a revived life during the summers, when I would download comic books and use it as a digital comic book reader and spend my days reading comics in the park or on the sofa.

Throughout 2013, my laptop’s power supply was again on the blink. I think being trussed around in my bag all day had really beaten it up. I probably replaced it a little too soon, and too keenly. It was heavy, and large, and I wanted something a little more portable for lugging around campus. By this point I’d discovered PC Specialist; a ‘configure your build’ type of OEM who specifically would allow me to save £80 on a laptop by not installing an operating system. In the winter break, in early January 2014, I took the plunge and replaced my laptop with a shiny Ultrabook from PC Specialist to see me through the final semester of my degree. That had similar specs but was much lighter, and I swapped out the HDD with an SSD as soon as I could afford it. Later in 2014, I spotted that the Moto E could run Android 4.4 KitKat and was inexpensive, so I gave the Galaxy Nexus to a friend and got myself one of those.

Throughout 2014, I started to come back to the fold a little with regards to doing computing in a way that gave me more freedom and less reliance on proprietary cloud services. I was adamant that I didn’t want to write my undergraduate dissertation document using MS Word or Libre/OpenOffice, mostly because of the citations and figure numbers. I was friendly with an exchange student, and she showed me how to use LaTeX; which I instantly fell in love with. It handled bibliography management itself, and automatically numbered tables and figures for me! Amazing. Being TeX files, it also meant that I could sync it and keep backups using Git, which I’d picked up during my degree. I used BitBucket for my Git repos at the time because they allowed me to have private repos.

My devices and my computing stayed relatively stable during the rest of 2014. My main devices were my PC Specialist ultrabook running Ubuntu (which I upgraded every LTS) and my Moto E phone with Android 4.4, later Android 5.0 Lollipop. My tablet got a look in every so often, but began to collect dust. I mostly wrote documents in LaTeX, wrote code in whatever IDE I was required to, used Chrome as a browser, and listened to music via Google Play Music as well as allowing Google to act as my photo storage and management system. Throughout this time, and especially across the summer; I was rediscovering my roots and my values around Open Source, and I wanted to do things in a more ethical way. My rose-tinted glasses over Googlified Android were beginning to wear off, and I started ruminating about doing things differently; but I didn’t want to return to the days of swapping USB pens in and out daily.

Since I needed to do some PHP web development for one of my modules, I opted for a text editor to write in as the PHP IDEs looked ridiculous. I initially chose to use Sublime Text based largely on liking the dark theme, however I ditched Sublime Text during the summer, after I discovered Atom. The proprietary nature and nagware tendencies of Sublime Text didn’t make up for what was, in my opinion, a pretty bog-standard text editor. Atom looked just as nice, had loads of cool extensions, and was Open Source. At the time, I didn’t realise how it was written in what would become Electron… and Atom became my default text editor for a number of years

In late 2014 I completed my BSc in Computing Science and moved onto my MRES/PhD course at Culture Lab, now Open Lab, at Newcastle university. They provided a laptop for their PhD students, and we were given a choice of a Dell XPS 13 and a Macbook Pro. At the time, I associated HCI and Culture Lab’s work with developing apps. I therefore had the logic of “I might need to build apps -> I might need to build iOS apps -> I can’t compile iOS apps on GNU/Linux -> I had better take the Macbook Pro in case”. It was one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made, quite frankly.

It turns out that the University only approved Macbooks from 2011, which were a little slow and incredibly heavy. In fact I think the Macbook Pro that they gave us was probably heavier than my old iBook G4! They certainly weren’t useful as portable machines for carrying around campus. The start-up bell interrupted lectures, and the disk drive decided to make whirring sounds randomly. I ended up rigging mine up to a monitor on my desk, folding it up vertically and hiding it behind some books in shame of the device. I then nabbed an Apple keyboard from a cupboard in Open Lab and tried and claim some decent use of it as a pseudo-desktop. In addition to the pains from the hardware, using OS X was also incredibly painful this time around. My previous use of OS X had mostly been based around torrenting, playing media, web browsing, using OpenOffice, as well as using Handbrake to encode DVDs. Turns out I’d never done any programming, web development, or LaTeX writing on an OS X system. I’d taken for granted how user-friendly GNU/Linux systems are for these use-cases; they trust you enough to allow you to install your development environment onto your system. Most of the time you just need to ask your package manager for a few packages and you’re off with Python, PHP, a LAMP stack, or LaTeX. I found this incredibly difficult in OS X to get a decent web development environment set up, and for some reason Python was being daft as well.

I was also competing with the fact that the university managed the machine. I logged in using my university login and OS X would take about 10 minutes to load. In the end, we figured out that this was because the machine was frantically trying to keep in touch with the university’s servers and sync my user account, email, and integrating the calendar into the OS X systems as well as the Windows-based “H: Drive” — my allocated share of the university storage, which I’d never once used. I managed to claw back a little functionality when I realised that I could trigger a wipe-and-reinstall of the base system which would remove the university’s additions and settings. This helped in getting the system running at a reasonable speed, but the problems inherent in OS X remained. Across the winter it became obvious that I wouldn’t need to develop any iOS apps if I didn’t want to, and I took the plunge and wiped OS X from the machine in preference of Ubuntu once more. The machine stayed on my desk at work; if I needed to travel I used my own laptop.

My computing tasks at the time were pretty much the same as I’d had since my undergraduate, except now spread across two machines. My home machine remained for personal projects, completing coursework at the weekends, and watching media on it. My university machine stayed on my desk, and had a more robust setup for programming and LaTeX. My work mostly consisted of writing documents, notes, and maintaining a library of papers to use as references for essays. For this I used Zotero, after quickly discarding Mendeley. I used the Zotero plugin for Firefox, and the Zotero standalone application. I’d export these to a BibTeX file when writing documents.

This setup in terms of devices basically stayed the same over the next few years, with the biggest changes being to how I used them.

2015 to 2018

  • I swapped out Ubuntu for Xubuntu on all my machines, and it became my system of choice for several years.
  • I started ditching Google services.
  • I started pulling away from web services and going FLOSS on my smartphone.

As 2015 arrived and wore on, my computing largely remained steady during my MRES. I used both my home laptop and my university machine the same way: I wrote most of my documents in LaTeX although I had LibreOffice installed to view student coursework and documents that my colleagues shared; and in terms of programming I wrote a few Android applications and some web applications using PHP and Symfony, which required a text editor. As noted, I’d been using Atom for a while there. When writing LaTeX I stuck with TeXMaker, although I had a few dalliances trying to use Atom to produce LaTex. None of those stuck, though.

I was still using Dropbox to sync most of my document files, but began switching a lot of the smaller folders for private Git repos. Open Lab ran an internal Gitlab instance, which I used to store all of my MRES and PhD work. In 2014, I had begun my swing back to the world of FLOSS and regaining my hardliner GPL views. I swapped out Chrome for Firefox in very early 2015 when I realised that the latter had developed an account sync feature.

In late 2015 I saw an Open Lab colleague using Xubuntu on their machine. I had known that XFCE was light on resources, but hadn’t thought to switch from the Unity-based default flavour of Ubuntu. I had started using the terminal a lot more to run things more quickly than the Ubuntu menus could, so wiped the machine and installed Xubuntu over the Autumn period. The Macbook almost actively thanked me for this as it could run a lot better now. Once I’d gotten used to it, Xubuntu became my system of choice and I installed it onto my home laptop as well.

During 2015 I purchased some domain and hosting, carving out the mrshll.uk space but not doing anything with it. By the end of 2015, going into 2016, I had growing privacy concerns and a desire to move to a more FLOSS-based ecosystem. I began with my email. I moved my personal email address to ones under my own domain, and ceased all personal use of Google Drive. This initially came on in fits and starts, but I started turning off Social Media as well as pulling away from Google across 2016 and 2017. I discovered F-Droid, and began replacing apps on my phone. Google Maps became OSMand, a podcast client became AntennaPod etc. There were a few system apps I tried to turn off, but couldn’t and the best I could do was try to disconnect my Google Account from the device. I decided that I was now uncomfortable with Google Play Music having such control over my music files. I used their exporter software to download all the music I’d uploaded previously, and stored it on an external drive. I actually rarely listened to full albums during this period; most of my audio was podcasts and I’d put random playlists on YouTube to suit the mood I was in, but put music on my phone using USB cables. I’d come full-circle back to an iPod like experience.

Tied in with the withdrawal from Social Media described above, I went through my Indieweb phase and discovered Markdown. I migrated my notes to markdown, and used a Markdown interpreter for PHP to produce the basic CMS that ran my site.

My devices remained static across this time period.

2018 to 2022

  • I continue to pull away from Google.
  • My devices all sequentially melt and require replacing.
  • Markdown and Plain text become my priority for document production.
  • My professional work forces me to use Google Docs and services.
  • I start trying to get a longer lifespan out of my machines.

2018 saw me continuing the trend as before, with pulling away from Google in as many arenas as possible. I’d now fully ditched my Gmail address and was using my webmail ones. I was dissatisfied with my web host because they severely hamstrung my ability to do much with my web space. I desperately wanted to install something that would remove my reliance on Google Calendar, and nothing seemed to work.

A big trend for me during 2018 was the move to a mostly Markdown and Plain text workflow. I began using Todo.sh, and converted my thesis into Markdown. Pandoc became an important part of my daily workflow.

In mid-2018 the HDD within the Macbook Pro I used at Open Lab spun its last and the machine was rendered useless. I lost a good bit of research material and thesis work in that crash, because I had failed to back things up properly. The machine was sent for repair with the university IT, who had offered to reinstall the system for me. I requested Xubuntu, which they complied with, but had rigged it to be managed by the university network. Thankfully it didn’t try to connect to the H Drive, but I didn’t have root access. I was on the sudoers list, and I rarely needed to do anything as root but it still irked me somewhat. Sadly, they’d locked down the bootloader so I couldn’t wipe it and reinstall Xubuntu myself. I sucked it up and got back to work after syncing git and my reinstalling my applications from the repos.

By the spring of 2018, I noted that it had been a few years since I had gotten a new phone and I decided that I wanted to treat myself to something compatible with LineageOS; the next stage in my battle to liberate my phone. I had in my head that the best phone for this would probably be a Google flagship device as I imagined stock android would be patched to run quite well. I got a Motorola Nexus 6 and managed to load LineageOS sans the Google Services. This became my daily driver and I even put my de-googled device through its paces by taking it on a trip to Canada. I adored using my FLOSS-powered phone, but sadly it melted itself during the summer of 2018. I have no idea how or why it happened. I woke up one day to it having reset during the night and refusing to boot. That was the second great data loss tragedy of my PhD, as I lost a lot of interview data which I’d neglected to back up from the device. I always keep my previous phone as a backup device, I so reverted to the Moto E for a few months before I decided to get a secondhand One Plus 5 in the late September or early October of 2018. This was wiped and installed with LineageOS as well, and remains my phone to this day.

Around mid 2018, my personal laptop was on the blink as well; mostly from the charging port. I seem to have bad luck, or bad practice when it comes to device charging ports. It was refusing to charge unless I kept the charger pressed down at a certain angle and it was growing dangerously hot when I did that. I ended up getting a new machine from the same vendor (PC Specialist), which was ultra-thin and fashioned from aluminium like a Macbook Pro. I figured it’d be my GNU/Linux equivalent of a Macbook so I bought it. I really liked that laptop despite the fact that at 16 inches it was a little bigger than I’d normally want to use. It had an i5 and maybe 8GB of RAM; although I don’t really remember. I installed Xubuntu on it and got on with my day. I took it with me when I started my job at Open Data Services Co-operative and got on with it fine. I donated the Macbook Pro machine back to Open Lab who surrendered it to the university IT service without ceremony.

In 2019 I was en route to Mexico for work. I stopped at Schipol to change flight and met with a colleague during the wait. We did a little bit of work, and then realised the time and rushed to the gate. I closed my laptop, put it into the bag, and thought nothing more of it. On the flight I didn’t like the look of any of the in-flight movies so wanted to watch something I had locally on my machine. I realised that the machine was still running as it was very hot to the touch, and when I opened it I couldn’t wake the machine up. I rebooted and discovered that I couldn’t log in, no matter how carefully I typed my password… after some debugging using the onscreen keyboard to log in, and trying out keys on the device I determined that the keyboard had broken during the initial portion of the flight. By my reckoning, the overheating and jostling during takeoff had probably dislodged some solder or something keeping the keyboard connected. Upon my return to the UK, I tried to get in touch with PC Specialist about a replacement part but to no avail. I was using a co-working space at the time, and couldn’t reasonably leave any peripherals there to use the machine as a pseudo-desktop. Further to that, I wasn’t set up at home for using the machine with an external keyboard or mouse.

I donated the machine to another member of the co-working space, even buying her an external keyboard and mouse set to use with the machine. I set up Ubuntu for her using the OEM install, which would let her set up her own user, and left her an instructional PDF for how to use Ubuntu to accomplish most daily tasks. As I did that, I reflected on my computer use and device use over the last few years. During my undergraduate I had basically burned through devices at an alarming rate, and I’d just had three devices basically melt on me in the last 12 months. I resolved to only get second-hand devices from then on. I knew I preferred laptops, and wanted a smaller laptop. From observing those with Dell XPS 13 devices at Open Lab I was familiar with those machines and their specifications, and knew they took GNU/Linux well. I bought myself a second hand machine from eBay, and at the same time realised that “backups” were important. I found a cheap, £120, ThinkPad Yoga machine with comparable specs and asked for it to be expensed at ODSC with the justification that I’d brought two of my own laptops now and I wanted a company machine just for travelling.

I set the machines up using the latest Xubuntu LTS at the time. I spent some time with the ThinkPad on a trip or two within the UK, as well as the Philippines and quickly fell in love with its keyboard as well as the trackpad buttons. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and I was relegated to a sofa in the sitting room, it was the ThinkPad that came with me as my main device. The Dell machine sat unused in my cupboard, until I installed Xubuntu 20.04 on it and used it for a week while I found time to install 20.04 on the ThinkPad as well; allowing me to seamlessly work without interruptions.

When I moved home in 2021, I experienced sitting at a desk for the first time in a while. I decided that, as a treat, I’d get a used monitor from a local exchange. Throughout 2021 until recently, my setup was using the ThinkPad on the desk hooked up to a second screen. This was useful for keeping notes on the laptop screen, and really was my preferred setup generally. This year, in 2022, the ThinkPad ‘E’ key broke. I think I must type pretty aggressively. I tried to glue the key back on, but the scissor-switch keyboard on the laptop was pretty poor and I eventually gave up. At that point, I had a lot of disorganised files on the machine and the thought of changing to the Dell was a little much. I borrowed a keyboard from a friend, and dusted off an old bluetooth mouse from a drawer. I put the machine on a riser and used it like this for a while, until I decided that I liked the setup.

Once I’d decided that, I wanted a keyboard more suited to my needs. I’ve never been fussed about mechanical keyboards but when I was looking at keyboards which didn’t have the 10-key numpad on the side (to reduce travel between the keyboard and mouse). I don’t claim a lot of expenses at work, so asked for a mechanical keyboard as I perceived them to be more user-serviceable (ability to replace keys etc). The bluetooth mouse has been swapped for a wireless one which takes a little USB dongle to connect. This necessitated that I also get a USB Hub to make sure I could connect: a mouse, a keyboard, headphones, and webcam to do my work.

After a while with that setup, I decided that the desk was too cluttered and I wanted to reduce my reliance on having two monitors, in case it breaks or I need to travel again. The ThinkPad now sits folded up by my monitor, reminiscent of my Macbook Pro setup at Open Lab. I use the mechanical keyboard on my lap where possible, as that allows me to recline more comfortably (and I think more ergonomically?).

When I was setting all this up, I decided that it’d be a good opportunity to refresh my systems and realised that Xubuntu 22.04 LTS was due out. As noted elsewhere on this blog, I ended up swapping Xubuntu for Debian 11 Stable. Pretty contented with this, I then got back into Linux Geek mode and began reading about SystemD. Oh dear. I shouldn’t have done that. As of now I’ve decided that I don’t like SystemD and I’ve wiped the Dell machine to install Devuan. The ThinkPad will follow in due time.

In terms of computing, I currently straddle two worlds. In my personal computing as well as for some of my professional work I can use small minimalist programs, and I take a lot of notes in markdown folders. I finished my PhD in markdown, although the final typesetting was performed in LibreOffice because I had failed to plan ahead and build a good LaTeX template. At Open Data Services Co-operative, we unfortunately are tied quite heavily to Google Services and use Google Docs and Google Drive a lot. This has been a daily reality for my computing ever since. We also use Colab Notebooks a lot, and my computing has expanded to include logging into databases as well as analysing data files locally. I make attempts to minimise the impact of this on my computing, but unfortunately I need to use these bloated web apps in the name of co-operation.

Present Day and going forwards

My current setup is:

  • A ThinkPad Yoga 12, running Debian 11 stable. This machine is folded up next to a monitor and I use it with a mechanical keyboard.
  • A Dell XPS 13, running Devuan 4. This machine is the one that comes with me travelling or to the sofa.
  • My One Plus 5 smartphone, running LineageOS without Google services.

My current priorities are reducing the amount of resources that my computing uses on a daily basis. This has involved switching to a more terminal-oriented existence, which I’m actually very comfortable with. This means that I’ve been able to be a bit more productive as I have less travel time to the mouse. I’ve been swapping out bloated apps for minimalist ones to reduce memory consumption. The most eco-friendly machine is the one you already own and don’t need to replace; so I’m going to try and use these machines until they physically cannot support a decent version of Debian / Devuan GNU/Linux. The same goes for my smartphone; if I choose a smartphone going forward it’ll be for device longevity using LineageOS.

For my daily drivers, I like the setup of having a workstation-type machine attached to a desk, paired with a laptop for portable work. When the ThinkPad does eventually die, I’ll hit up eBay to look for a secondhand (or thirdhand) Lenovo ThinkStation mini; ideally with an i9 and upgradeable RAM. If I got a machine with an i9 and 64GB of RAM paired with my current trend of trying to do everything minimally; I reckon that’d likely be the last machine I’d ever need for around two decades unless x86 disappears from GNU/Linux support. The laptop machine can be a lot more humble; I’m clearly OK editing text and manipulating data using mid 2010s hardware. It’s just the increasingly bloated web apps that will reduce devices to e-waste…

This has been an indulgent trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the devices I’ve used across the years as well as how I’ve grown and change in terms of how I’ve done my computing. You can find an up to date summary of how I do my computing now by reading the relevant section on my About page.

  1. I currently use Vim, but I’m not opposed to GNU Emacs in the future as I try to migrate more and more into the terminal. Contrary to a lot of memes, GNU Emacs doesn’t violate the UNIX philosophy; it is a fantastic LISP interpreter and a place to start pulling in multiple commandline utilities into a single space. If I get sick of trying to keep track of multiple windows / instances of Vim; I’ll be hitting up GNU Emacs. However, I’m pretty content with my current setup with Vim. 

  2. Yepp, High School. In the UK! In Northumberland we had the 3-tier school system until around 2008. You went to ‘First School’ ages 4 to 9, ‘Middle School’ ages 9 to 13, and ‘High School’ ages 13 to 16. That marked the end of compulsory education in the UK for us. Most people stayed on at their local ‘6th Form’ or went to a local ‘College’ ages 16 to 18, before attending University (or leaving to go and work).