Computer :(

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D U M B P H O N E L A N D I A

1 Revisiting Convergence

So, I've been trying to make computers less horrible to use in my day to day life over the last six or eight months. I've learned a lot through this process. First and foremost that I've learned is that I do need the horespower my thinkpad provides me, which surprised me. Ubuntu Edge-style hardware with Plasma Active-style convergence is still, to me, the holy grail of computing: no need to sync to the cloud, no need to carry around three devices for your various needs, it sounds great. But computing is not there yet and I don't know when it will be.

I stopped using my tf700 when I realized I wasn't using it for anything besides IRC and games. I couldn't actually find myself doing work on it, I couldn't actually be productive, the main reason I use computers at all, though this is where I diverge from the average user of computers. Besides all that noise, the hardware itself was fatally crippled with a bad eMMC bridge that would cause the device to randomly hardlock itself. Quite a pain in the ass. I tried a chromebook but the hardware was janky enough that I didn't enjoy it, and the situation with running Fedora on it was complicated by the ChromeOS updates breaking every automated install system. Also the screen looked like two butts painted by picasso.

Besides working a whole lot to ship this cool thing, I've been struggling with the whole culture of the bay area tech scene and the mobile development sector as a whole. There is a lot of skeeziness and grossness that saps my energy from hacking for good On top of all of this, trying to wrangle my workflow between a work laptop, personal productive device and personal smartphone has just drained me and made me hate computers. The Computer Anonymous community has been a hugely supportive force in my life lately, bolstering me up and keeping me interested in the projects that I care about, including making computers less horrible.

Another thing that made this whole experience difficult has been my discovery of Org Mode and this ridiculously verbose but otherwise great workflow. Yes the writer behind Hardcore Freestyle Vimming now uses Emacs as his OS. He still edits text in vim though, for now. Org has done wonders for my ability to organize myself and make sense of my personal and work projects and where all of my time is going. However, it doesn't really work on mobile and finding a good solution for that has basically become "carry a notebook around." This has led me down a path of towards the realization that a lot of my pain with technology isn't the lack of battery life, or the fact that I have too many gadgets to contend with, it's that, in short, my smartphone is the weak link in the chain of technology that drives my day to day experience in life, and forces me to contend with workarounds and make concessions in my optimal workflow.

This all started when I dropped my Nexus 5. The circumstances therein don't matter, but it cost me 250$ and a huge saga to get it all back together. The time I spent without my phone had an interesting effect on my psyche and productivity: it was simultaneously terrifying and incredibly freeing. My life is tied in to a device that can be rendered useless after falling 3 feet to a hard ground. Remember this fucking thing? Of course you do, you probably ran over it with your car and had to deal with a bent rim, yet our current devices though far more powerful, need to be coddled like infants.

< asmallteapot> I love that we live in a world where "don't accidentally not treat something perfectly" is just accepted

I don't think that is acceptable, but it's kind of what we're stuck with for now, especially if we want to live in S M A R T P H O N E L A N D I A

Until we have an Edge, investing in convergence as I've tried to do is going to cause you pain and suffering, unless you're willing to drink all of the kool-aid and trust companies who value your data far far less than you do. I don't, so I've suspended this idea of finding one device and one formfactor to rule them all. Instead, I've been talking with a few of my friends who have realized the massive difficulty of protecting your valuables while also using a smartphone productively, and have started carrying feature phones instead.

2 D U M B P H O N E L A N D I A

I ended up modelling what I actually use my devices for. I recently bought a kindle and it's become my main source of long form reading, to the point where I've actually considered getting newspaper subscriptions on it. I've started to visualize how people use technology as rings, each ring being a certain Level of Effort that a task requires. Reading email is a low LOE, writing or replying to emails is a decidedly higher LOE. Writing code, organizing my files or photos, that is a high LOE.

I've been ruminating a lot on Service Oriented Architecture a lot, too, and had a bit of an epiphany in how your physical hardware could play metaphorically with the idea of each piece of hardware in your inventory of tools being a Service designed to serve a certain thing, whether this is "Provide Ability to Read eBooks", or "Notify you that your servers ARE ON FIRE!!!11". By breaking your services in to smallest pieces possible, you can ensure the maximal availability of any one service. Until true convergence happens, snapping in the opposite direction as hard as possible away from this uncomfortable middle zone I find myself in, could prove to be a good solution.

Of course, this is has a lot of drawbacks – There is far more hardware to contend with, and there is still a certain amount of data layer issues to solve. I've inadvertantly been solving a lot of the data layer after purchasing a home server and moving a lot of my infra behind a VPN, centralizing the data store in an NFS-exposed RAID, making it very easy to get data from one place to another. Another piece of the puzzle could be something like Huginn and some other purpose-built server software I have in mind to curry data between various parts of my infrastructure.

So my idea is to build a loose network of purpose-built devices that solve various tasks in the most optimal way possible, eschewing the idea of convergence until we have the pieces in place to do it right. Needless to say, I'll be working on those pieces still, but we have a long road ahead of us, despite what Ubuntu thinks. We'll see if the benefits outweight the costs. Any rate, here's my lineup:

  • Nexus 5: Will continue to be my phone until I can phase it out comfortably
  • Thinkpad x230: personal machine, used for heavy tasks like responding to and triaging email as well as general web browsing
  • Nokia n810: (haha, yeah) this device will be mostly SSH access on the go as well as hopefully an emacs client with my org files sync'd or SD'd to it
  • Kindle Paperwhite2: eBook and general long-form reading. I'm planning to wire Huginn up to send every morning a document to it with my day's agenda, as well as the top, say 15 pocket articles in a single mobi file. This is stuff to read on transit, and generally through the day.
  • iPad Mini Retina: Work thing, really only has Tweetings, Storehouse builds and Pocket on it, and a few games that I don't really play. Backup for transit if my Kindle is dead or left at home.

I'm probably crazy, this is probably a crazy idea, but it's a cheap experiment and pushing me to deploy and clean up a lot of things I've wanted to do for a long time now, so I'm considering it a win, and another step in this weird workflow hack that I've been working up to for the last eight months.