The old computer challenge 2022

My name is Keith Burnett. I mostly run Linux but I like to keep an eye on OpenBSD by installing each new version as it becomes available.

Solene at Dataswamp is holding a sequel to last year's old computer challenge. This year, we are connecting to the internet for just one hour per day. Apparently in France Internet connections were limited by time back in the days of modems.

The challenge has come at a good time. I have just finished reading Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism. And it is the summer so just one Zoom meeting on Monday 11th. I'm using a different computer for work related Internet connections, probably only on Monday.

Many of the participants in the Challenges are using command line applications with text editors to update their pages. Like last year, I have decided to stick to graphical tools running under Xorg where sensible. This page is edited offline using the Composer component of Seamonkey.

Machine and setup

Since we are not limited directly by machine specification I'm using a Thinkpad X60 32bit core duo laptop for this challenge. The machine has 3Gb of RAM and a 120Gb SSD hard drive with OpenBSD 7.1 installed. I removed the original WiFi card from this X60 because it wasn't working reliably. I use a USB WiFi dongle that uses the urtw driver in OpenBSD. I can disconnect the Internet just by pulling out the dongle!

Software includes Seamonkey for Web, email and writing Web pages because Firefox is not supported on the OpenBSD i386 architecture any more. I'm using Abiword to draft the text of a booklet I'm writing, and Gnumeric, R and GNU-Octave to do the calculations and charts. I'm using fluxbox for a window manager and xfe for when I need to manage files.

My hidden advantage

I'm old and I can remember the time before the Internet (and I mean the Internet, not just the Web), even before email.

My first experience of the actual Internet involved connecting to a Unix computer in London via ppp using dialup, priced at the full daytime phone rate plus the subscription. So although in the UK there was no time cap, you can bet we were careful and planned our Internet use beforehand. Exactly the kind of intentional use that is the theme of Cal Newport's book.

I was exploring the Internet with telnet, gopher, ftp and this new thing called the World Wide Web. Using links and the gopher client in a telnet shell. And pine for email. One service I do miss is an Agora server. You could send an email with the subject line giving a Web address and receive the Web page in plain text format as a reply. That could save connection time!

We shall see how I get on.

Sunday 10th July

A few flowers in an old
      passata jar

What passes for a heatwave in the UK (27 degrees and sunny). I'm writing this off-line using Seamonkey's composer. Later on I'll plug the USB wifi dongle in and issue the sh /etc/netstart command to connect. Composer's publish command won't work with modern shell accounts that use SSH or SFTP so I'll use an rsync script to upload this page and the associated images.

I'm busy doing nothing. Made some bread, checked my work email account from my work laptop (half an hour) as I'm facilitating a Zoom session for prospective classroom volunteers tomorrow. Made salads and picked some flowers.

Tomorrow I'm up early for a busy work morning. Then I'm starting a new novel. Alan Moore's Jerusalem.

Monday 11th July

Volunteer training session complete today (3h on the work laptop on Zoom, Google Jamboard, the WordWall quiz Web application and use of email within the session). So work is finished for the next month or so.

In terms of the challenge, I connected to the Internet and read my news page and then checked my personal email account. Did a couple of searches about gnuplot and Inkscape and LaTeX. Ended up using pkg_add to install LibreOffice as I need the ability to write, add drawings and mathematical formulas to a text. LibreOffice Writer isn't that much heavier than Abiword. My Internet connection downloaded and installed the 100Mb+ LibreOffice files in a few minutes. In the old days, at 56Kbits/s that would have been something like four hours on a good day.

I've discovered that Inkscape has an extension that allows you to add LaTeX formulas to drawings. I see posters in my future.

Tuesday 12th July

I'm using a Nokia dumb phone as part of this week (in fact over the summer). I normally use my old Blackberry Classic (physical keyboard, acts as a solid wifi hotspot if our main connection stops working, does email, has a basic camera good enough for recording notices and pages of notes). Just swapping the sim in worked fine as usual.

On for half an hour this morning and read my news pages. Then off again. I've kept half an hour to check the weather tonight and to upload this page. Reading A Million Wild Acres by Eric Rolls. Roger Deakin in Wildwood wrote favourably of Roll's book.

Wednesday 13th July

The Nokia can take pictures. The image compression is quite high and the quality isn't fantastic but the results can provide a visual log of a walk.

Montage of 9 images of
      stickers on posts in Birmingham

Lamp posts are the new twitter! People are making stickers with (sometimes strange) messages on them and 'publishing' to lamp posts and the posts for road signs in the centre of the city.

The Nokia is recognised as a mass storage device and appears as /dev/sd1i on OpenBSD. It is easy to copy the nine selected images to a directory. Then using the following command from ImageMagick's montage program will generate the 3 by 3 array of images.

$ montage +frame +shadow +label -tile 3x3 -geometry 150x200+0+0 *.jpg post.jpg

The command line is adapted from one of the examples in the ImageMagick documentation which can be found at file:///usr/local/share/doc/GraphicsMagick/www/montage.html on OpenBSD.

The +frame +shadow +label part of the command line ensures that there isn't a frame, shadow or border.

The -tile 3x3 -geometry 150x200+0+0 section of the command line ensures that each image is resized to 150px wide and 200 tall and is then tiled with the other 8 images with no gap or border between them.

The *.jpg globs all the jpg format images in the current directory (so I use a new directory for each montage I want to make) and post.jpg is just the file name for the completed montage.

ImageMagick wasn't installed directly, it turned up as a dependency of one of the other packages I installed.

Thursday 14th July

One of the other participants has put up a page with a list of journals/blogs. The gopher protocol page can be read using the w3m command line Web browser (in OpenBSD packages). The Gemini protocol page is a bit more effort to read. I used the Gemini to Web proxy service to render the page which seems to relate to last year's Challenge. I'm old enough to have used the Gopher protocol when it was as popular as the World Wide Web. It seemed like utter magic at the time!

One of the other participants is sticking with 56kbit/sec modem speeds as well as limiting himself to one hour of connectivity per day. I have to admit that I had not thought of that angle.

Today, I logged in at around 7am to pull down a news page I read most days. After the page loaded (less than a minute) I disconnected while I read the page. Then a couple of minutes on email (imap in Seamonkey's email component) and another 10 minutes on Web pages (e.g. the Spitalfields Life blog), call it 20 mins max.

Politics is 'interesting' in the UK at the moment so I hopped on around 5pm for 15 min to see what is happening. I'll connect again in a bit to upload this page and to research an explorer in 19th Century Australia (so before Australia was actually federated) who was mentioned in the book I'm reading.

Friday 15th July

"The bulk of mankind is as well qualified for flying as thinking."
--Jonathan Swift

Preparing for next week with very hot weather by UK standards.

Working on garden. I'm removing ivy from the back fence (local council complaining about overhanging foliage) and getting rid of the grass in the main area (never seen the point of grass). I'm coveting a mattock I've seen in a local shop. Breaking up the soil with such an implement would be useful and very good exercise!

Sunday 17th July

I didn't switch a computer on yesterday. My Nokia phone does text messages (3) and phone calls (1) fine.

My takeaway from this year's Old Computer Challenge is basically Cal Newport's concept of intentional (i.e. planned beforehand) use of the Internet/Web instead of random link following.

Another learning is that Xorg and a selected set of graphical applications are certainly usable on a 2006 laptop under OpenBSD with 3Gb RAM and an SSD.